All posts by georgisola

Five thousand kilometres in six hours

I am fully aware that this update is very late, and I do hope that my recent silence has not lead to too many worries.


After another week in Saint Louis I decided to go home. I thought through a number of options on how to continue but my heart wasn’t in any of them. Finally I dismantled and packed up my bike, got a car to Dakar where I got on a plane back to Europe. I have enjoyed spring in the Alps since, primarily.


So far, that is the facts. There is no more substantial information further down. However, if the world would just stick to the facts, there wouldn’t be any good stories, so here is some of the feelings that came with them.


Due to its location Mali being not safe restricts travel in West Africa significantly. Starting from where I was, it would require myriads of visas to get through a number of small countries along the coast. The Cassamance, the part of Senegal which is south of the Gambia has a rebel problem, and there has been a coup in Guinea Bissau as well. On top of all that, the rainy season was approaching. A flight to Ouagadougou would have been an option but that would have only taken me 1500 km ahead of the next dead end Nigeria. And leaving out the good parts of Mali, as well as most of Burkina Faso was disappointing. Of course my break was partially an attempt to sit it out too, hoping things would improve quickly and I would go back to Bamako and continue as planned. Soon I came to the conclusion that I was wasting time. Further more some problems were brewing back home that needed sorting out. Both being too private to put on the internet, but trust me, too boring as well. I don’t know why I remember that it was a Wednesday when I decided I would fly home, for the time being.


The hardest part was, as so often the letting go, accepting that this bike tour was over and anything further would be something new. Flying out to Cameroon and take it from there is an option, or go for Ethiopia or Kenya. But this would be a new bike tour, the long line through Africa was not going to happen. Accepting something is over however opens a lot more options, allows as well for a new story.


I had ordered a car to take me with my big luggage to Dakar airport. It took four uneventful hours. Despite my reservation there was a bit of trouble with my oversized luggage but after some negotiations we got there. A grumpy immigration officer took my fingerprints and stamped me out but did not even check the data page of my passport. Had I not had an entry stamp, he wouldn’t have noticed.


I stepped into shiny Brussels Airport early the next morning. Outside it was cold and rainy. In my zip off trousers and sandals I did not fit in well with the Monday morning crowd of business travellers. I noticed I had maintained clean feet for sixteen hours, something that really doesn’t ever happen in Africa. It felt sexy.


Some more seasoned travellers to Africa had told me that Europe can be overwhelming when you return from Africa. You don’t notice how you change with the world that surrounds you, several people told me, but you realise when you come back. How bloody right they were. It was all quite overwhelming.


The supermarket, primarily selling plastic, with its abundance of foods, most of which I actually didn’t miss. The crowd of well dressed people, hurrying around, focussed. The number of fat people, in my sleep deprived, slow and absent state I caught myself staring at one in a cafe for several minutes. I wandered around that Monday morning airport scene erratically and felt I did not belong.


It took some shopping around to find a rental car in Vienna. Before I left I spent some time standing in the pouring rain. I had not had experienced any rain in five months. I hit the motorway, full of cars, oh, yeah, the traffic as well was overwhelming. Somewhere in Upper Austria I had a break at one of these motorway break places. It was decorated with transparent walls filled with different kinds of wheat and beans, the local produce of the surrounding fields. In the Sahel, hunger season was about to start.


I got fed well. A Schweinsbraten for starters, how often had I dreamed about it in the past half years? It remained cold and rainy, and I kept to myself for a few of days, before I called up some of my close friends that I was back.






Ok, and here are the answers to a few questions you might be having at this point.


What will you don next?

I don’t know. No proper plans as such. I have spoken to a few companies for a job but on the terms that I am not sure whether I want one quickly. I might as well head off again. Thoughts always precede an action. Judging from the things on which my thoughts have been focussed in the past few weeks I don’t think chances for this are great in the near future.


Are you disappointed that you quit your tour?

Yes and no. A few times earlier on the trip I was thinking about not going all the way. I might have well quit ahead of time. The scale of the undertaking was very large, and it can be very lonely at times. A lot of what I wanted from the trip I got already. I would have preferred to end it on my own terms though. Now it feels a bit as if I was being pushed out of it randomly in Bamako. Despite all, I am proud that I cycled over 7500 km and made it all the way from London to Bamako. Then, I am still curious what is there down the road.


Since it didn’t work out the way you wanted, do you regret it?

Hell, no!! I had a dream and I went for it. And it was a great trip with at least one of these magic moment every single day. Be it the autumn colours in Europe, the endless Sahara, the nights out in the Savannah, dining with the villagers, the baths in the rivers, the heat of the Sahel and the cold of the Atlas, the bright stars by night, the friendliness and generosity from strangers, the pride after a mountain pass, the independence of setting up my home just anywhere. And this is just a few of the highlights which were there every single day.


Did you learn something on this trip?

Yes, a lot. I crossed the Atlas and the Sahara. I spent months in the Sahel. I saw places. I experienced different cultures, different people. I learned what a different culture means, and how much we are stuck in one. This said, I learned about personhood, on being a human. I learned about my possibilities and my limitations. About looking after myself and being looked after. I have rarely written about the spiritual part of this bike tour, or a journey in general. Well, a proper and concise answer to this question would probably fill up my server space.


Will you go to Africa again or are you scared now?

Nothing I have experienced has put me off. I will certainly go again. Africa is my love as a travel destination and I will have more trips, hopefully longer ones. If anything I am more relaxed and confident about the place than I ever was.


Will you do this kind of thing again?

Hopefully. You never know, but if it will be time once more, there will be a way once more.


What will happen to your bike?

It is still packed up, what doesn’t show a lot of respect towards it. But then, as much as you get attached to it on a long tour, it still is a thing, and it would be unpractical to unwrap it when I don’t know what happens to it next. I examined it before I left and it entered the carton clean and healthy. On the longer run… It will certainly do a few more trips. In between it will be well looked after.





A huge leap backwards. Refugee style.

Sorry to all those people who prefer to look at the photos rather than read a lot of text. There are not many this time. This is the story about escaping from a scary situation. The quickest and safest route took me largely through places I had either already travelled, or which are not of a lot of interest. And for extended periods of time I was not in the mood to dig out my camera and take photos.


After the weekend in a hotel in Bamako I moved to a more overlander type place south of the river. I did this in order to save some money on what would probably be a longer stay in the capital. Only later I learned what a lucky move I had made. The place was one of those where all the overlanders go. I had heard about it well in advance. The crowd there was half overlanders, some in cars some on motorbikes, some waiting to depart on a plane back. A woman doing research, some volunteers, journalists, and a Tuareg man who lived there permanently since his house was destroyed by hostile militias. The property was just south of the river, separated by a bridge from the city centre.


It was a Wednesday afternoon when I came back from the Burkina Faso embassy where I had collected my visa. This particular embassy is right behind the government buildings in Bamako. I had probably been back for about an hour when I was made aware of the gunfire audible in the distance. Nobody knew what was going on however somebody had figured out that the next day there was a demonstration of the military on. A demonstration of the military? Well, it’s strange, but not everything always goes straight into the western mind here in Africa. We learned from the internet that what was going on was a mutiny of soldiers. It seemed a bit weird to us that it looked like all the locals had known about a demonstration going on and nobody had informed us. The gunfire came closer and at times we heard people screaming. Late at night we learned that the national TV had been taken over by the military and later the presidential palace.


It was well after midnight when I was sitting outside still. The gunfire continued and sometimes it was really close. Eventually it was time to go to sleep but the whole atmosphere was very worrying.


Thursday morning we learned that what happened was a coup d’etat. The gunfire continued but it got less and less during the afternoon. Then, it was strangely quiet outside. There was a curfew in place, but you wouldn’t want to stray out anyway. A woman showed up and introduced herself as the German consul to Bamako. She said there was looting and muggings in the city centre and warned us about leaving the property, especially while the curfew was in place. She registered all the Germans and those EU nationals who are unrepresented in Mali, a bunch of Portuguese people and me that was. She handed out lists of airlines and travel agencies. The borders were closed and so was the airport. The portuguese bunch had finished their trip and were due to leave that day. Late in the night they headed off to the airport but came back later without their luggage.


The curfew remained in place on Thursday and Friday, although it got very quiet outside, no more shooting. There is a swimming pool at a nearby hotel and I went there sometimes just for a change of scenery. Food stocks were running low so I ventured outside to find something to eat. It was strangely calm. No traffic, no people on the streets, virtually all shops closed. The German consul came once more in the afternoon. Everybody had questions, but she didnt have any substantial answers. How could she? Information was changing by the half hour and little of it was reliable. There was a chance that borders would open again after the weekend, but nobody knew. Her last question was whether we were all well. Somebody jokingly said yes, unless the beer stock runs out. She headed off and came back with a crate of Warsteiner beer.


Most of the time a military coup is actually very boring. You can’t go anywhere or do anything. You don’t know anything. We checked the news for updates every few minutes but there was nothing. Confined in a small space with a bunch of strangers you start to go onto each others nerves. It was hot. Temperatures in the afternoon were always well above 40 degrees and it did not cool to 30 degrees over night. Electricity for the fans was intermittent. The curfew was partially lifted during the weekend, by day it was allowed to go out. There wasn’t much outside though. Restaurants and supermarkets remained closed since people feared looting. And the streets remained strangely calm.


The Tuareg man got upset with our moaning. We had our embassies to go to he said, but him being Malian, he didn’t have anywhere to turn to. He would leave the country at the earliest possibility, he said. I felt sorry for him.


On face value, things looked as if they were back to normal on Tuesday. The borders remained closed but the airport opened for half a day. Bamako was busy and restaurants and supermarkets were open again. At least there was some change of scenery when going outside. The city centre, or anywhere north of the river remained a no go zone though. The Portuguese group headed out to the airport and did not return, they had probably made it. A French couple had not, they were back the next morning. To my surprise a man arrived in a car. He had driven in from Guinea completely ignorant of the coup and hit a small time frame during which the border was open. Larissa, the German consul popped in most days and told us about the latest developments. Primarily about the rebels gaining land in the north and east. And whether or not the borders and the airport was open, mostly neither of them. By then we were on first name terms.


Only now it started to settle in what had happened. I couldn’t believe I had cycled into a military coup. Straight ahead, 10th gear. Had I been nave? There was plenty of time to contemplate. By the time I entered, there was no mention of increased security risk on any foreign office website I read. Even the paranoid ones, like my own country’s had stated that Bamako and surroundings were safe. Of course some places in the north of the country were off limits, but this was far away in the Sahara. Otherwise Mali had been regarded as a model of democracy and development in West Africa, perfectly stable for 20 years.


The presidents of Mali’s neighbouring countries were supposed to fly in for negotiations on Thursday. Due to a demonstration in favour of the coup at Bamako airport the plane did not land but carried on to Abidjan. There they agreed on sanctions against Mali, namely blocking the borders and cut off the cash supply from the central bank. Western aid money had been cut a few days early.


These news broke while we were sitting with Larissa, this time over Paulaner Weibier. The stay in Bamako would be for longer, for unlimited time. While still digesting the news, we learned that they had set an ultimatum of 72 hours before the sanctions would be imposed. Larissa said what I thought anyway, leave as quickly as you can. Things are going to turn nasty.


I contemplated my situation. The distance to the closest border crossing into Burkina Faso was about 360 km, doable on the bike but not easily. It would be a gamble on no breakdown, and nobody knew how many roadblocks would be on the way, and, worse, how much land the Tuareg rebels had gained in this chaos. Guinea is closer, doable in a day but I had no visa. Same story for Ivory Coast and Mauritania, the latter would even take me through an unsafe area. I decided to buy one of these horribly expensive airline tickets that one can claim the money back first thing the next morning. Martin, the man who had arrived in a car in the middle of the chaos offered me a lift to Senegal. This seemed to be the only safe place reachable in a short time.


Larissa said there had been violence at the airport as people fought to get onto flights, until the police went in. I dismissed the idea of flying out. I hated to go backwards, but the only chance for a timely escape I could see was going back to Senegal.


I loaded the bike onto Martin’s car and we headed off at lunchtime. It was a long shot still. We would have to get out of Bamako, potentially passing a number of roadblocks, and through Kati, where the coup leader and the bulk of those soldiers loyal to him were located.


It was the same road that I came. On the outskirts of Bamako there was remarkably little traffic, the petrol stations deserted however at the police station started a lorry queue, seemingly kilometres long. It is only a short drive to Kati where they had put tanks and heavy weapons along the road, and soldiers with machine guns lined the area around the barracks. It was all strange and intimidating, but nobody stopped us. It all went well though and by the early evening we were deeply in the Savannah well away from the action. It took us two days to reach the border.


A remote border crossing should not be too difficult to pass. When I came the other way, Senegalese immigration was very unfriendly, but he didn’t give me trouble. It was different this time. Martin, with his car went first and was back in five minutes. It was certainly different for me. I went in and he took my passport. Flipped all the pages, back and forth, and again. He flipped it back to me and said there is no visa. I said Austrians do not need a visa to enter Senegal, and if he doesn’t know would he please call the Senegalese embassy in Nouakchott, from where I claimed I got this information. ‘For me Austrians need a visa’ he said once more, than added, ‘you have to go back to Bamako and apply for a visa’. Then he turned away and ignored me. A bunch of Guinean people entered the office and he wasted a lot of time thoroughly checking their identity cards, claimed he couldn’t read one, then demanded vaccination certificates. It was too obvious what was going on, especially when one of those guys produced a 2000 CFA note neatly folded between his fingers. By then I had been in this immigration office for one and a half hours.


I had to escape but was not yet prepared to break my principles. I was alone with the policeman again. I pointed out the two entry stamps for Senegal, after all I had entered the country twice in the past two months without a visa. He gave them a thorough check. ‘They don’t know anything there and stamp everything’. Yes, and you at your backvelder border crossing, you know everything, I thought. My passport flew through the air once more and landed right in front of me on the desk. ‘I don’t let you in without a visa’ he said, then left me standing alone in the office. First I had to swallow what had happened. Then I realised that I had to do something fast. I contemplated my options. There was no way I would go back into Mali. Alone in the office, I thought, I could just stamp the passport myself, but I didn’t find the stamp and inkpad quickly. I went outside and saw the officer eating lunch around the corner, well out of sight of the road. There was no motorised vehicle in sight. I had slept in the village on the way out so I knew there were no cars there either. I went back to Martin’s car and said let’s head off quickly.


Once more I was illegally in the country, a bloody border jumper. I told Martin what had happened, and that we would have to stop in Kedougou and find immigration, where I would have to beg for an entry stamp. I was stressed to the point that I was shivering. Had that thug back at the border seen me leaving and call somebody to catch us on the road? Would a routine check reveal I was illegally in the country? We arrived in Kedougou and I asked my way to immigration. A young policeman was sitting outside of the office pouring his tea. Putting on my best smile I spent about ten minutes having small talk, desperately trying to make friends with him. The guy was very friendly, and I came forward with my issue. I told him my story, slightly altered here and there, and before I had finished he said no problem, took me to his supervisor, who didn’t even listen to my story while he pressed the stamp into my passport and wished me bonne route. Needless to mention my relief.


We headed for a camp right on the shore of the Gambia river which I was not all too keen to see again. It was closed for refurbishment but the manager let us pitch up the tents just outside and gave us a shower to use. We were travelling in a group of four, there was Martin driving his Land Rover, Cathi and Tobias from a village barely 20 km away from my hometown Salzburg on motorbikes, and me.



When you hook up with other people of course you also hook up with their problems. Tobias had a serious issue with his motorbike so in the morning he and Martin, a car mechanic by profession, made a lengthy attempt to fix it. By the time they were finished we decided it was too hot to leave and we stayed for another day.


My buddies were all heading for Mauritania, and back to Europe and took the shortest route through Senegal. Another two days later we arrived in Saint Louis. Sounds familiar? Well, it is the same Saint Louis where I had been stuck waiting for my parcel. In four days I made a staggering 1300 km leap backwards, a distance that would normally take me a month on the bicycle, easily.


And this is where I am now, safe in familiar territory, but a long way back. It has been a stressful two weeks and for a day I didn’t do much more than sleeping. It was a very strange experience. I still cannot believe I cycled straight into a military coup. The biggest damage done is the one to my confidence and to my motivation. This is primarily due to the fact that I went a long way backwards, and that at the moment there are a lot of dead ends across West Africa. At some stage I will have to go to Dakar, either to get a visa or to board a flight. First, I will have to make my mind up on how I want to continue.


For a continuation of the story in Mali read the news websites. I don’t have any different source. The embargo is in place and things will probably turn nasty. Fuel and food will run out first. The money supply from the central bank has been cut so liquidity will run out in round about 10 days. I am very sorry for the people. It was not meant that I see much of the country, but I did take in the friendly people, the smiles, the generosity. I am very sorry for them. I could run away, but they cannot.



A journey without maps

I left Kedougou into the unknown. I had heard about a new road connecting Kedougou with Kita in Mali, but it is not to be found on any map. In the past maps, and especially the information provided by locals has not always been reliable, but here it was just a pure guess.


Touristy Senegal pretty much finishes in Kedougou. And there, actually, the tourist infrastructure was largely used by people who were there for business. Large scale mining of gold and iron ore is planned in the area, that’s why, I heard.


The road wasn’t difficult to find and it was all new, the painted white lines barely dry. My estimate was that it would take me a week to Bamako, roughly guessing from the distance on the map and past experience. My planning was poor though. The first day I cycled over hundred kilometres to the border. Albeit this was a nice achievement that day it left me with considerable fatigue for the next few days.



There is not much beyond Kedougou. A few villages, and lots of emptiness, all surrounded by the never ending sea of Savannah. There are no more brick houses, just mud brick round houses. There is no electricity, no running water, not much on offer in the occasional shops. Some fluff is flying in the air and stuck to bushes, the wild cotton, I learned.



The border crossing was fairly easy, I was stamped out, crossed the bridge. Mali officials claimed my visa was expired, but I got there finally. Another sign of the lack of tourists is there is no more asking for ‘cadeaux’.


The first day in Mali saw a strong Harmattan. The Harmattan is a dry and dusty trade wind blowing from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea. During strong events the visibility is severely limited and the sun is blocked.





With better visibility the route would have been quite attractive. It got hilly, and finally seriously mountainous. There was nothing signposted as such but I am sure I crossed something that would normally be referred to as a mountain pass. I took it in steps of 70 to 80 kilometres after the big first day, what was quite exhausting. Only in Kita I had a day rest.


It was as well a journey against the wind. By no means was this as strong as in the Sahara, but it dragged on particularly from mid morning to mid afternoon. It seems to cease spot on sunset so that you can continue sweltering for another few hours.




You probably didn’t need a meteorologist to tell you that it is hot in Africa. What I have experienced on this stretch is certainly beyond anything I have ever experienced in the past. By day temperatures climb to 40 degrees. It is cooler over night and in the morning however, this is strictly relatively speaking. High twenties probably. I did the bulk of the cycling in the morning, until the heat forced me off the bike in the afternoon and have a break then. Full speed, round about 20 km/hr is only possible early in the day. Yet, I sweat a lot in the morning, but from about eleven o’clock the temperature is beyond sweating, and I produce just dry salt staines. It’s bearable but uncomfortable. It is certainly a dry heat, so the internal cooling mechanism is working well. But how is this for an object that can’t sweat? Well, take my water bottles. By lunchtime, my water has about the temperature I like my Melange back home, or my cappuccino elsewhere. If I use the water I carried to wash by the end of the day it is actually too hot.


Needless to say I consume a lot of water. I currently carry a bit more than four litres and I fill up three times a day, and more for the night. Virtually all the villages have communal wells, quite modern pumps. Villagers tell me a bunch of Germans showed up and put them in place. They have clean drinking water since. Possibly this is why they like me. They are ignorant of my country, but then I tell them my native language is German, and I feel they just think I am bollocking them insisting I come from a place called ‘Autriche’.


I also stop in the villages over night. I ask for the ‘chef du village’ for permission, and it has never been a problem. More often than not they offer me a round hut but so far I preferred to sleep in my tent. The main reason I prefer to stay in villages is once more the water. It is unlimited there, and I would otherwise have to carry a lot of it into the bush. I can wash myself and cook. However most of the time they offer me dinner. Rice that is, or couscous. The ritual is the men and sometimes the kids come together, everybody wash their hands, the squatting on the floor and eating out of large bowls with the right hand. The left hand is strictly out, since this is the had to clean yourself.


It seems there is little going on in the villages. The women are apparently busy with cooking and washing all day, while the men don’t seem to do a lot at all. Mud bricks are produced here and there, and grass is cut to maintain the houses which can get severely damaged during the rainy season. Houses are only for sleeping, all the life is outside. I never get to talk to the women, after dinner, I feel I am expected to sit with the men and drink tea. Probably the arrival of a western traveller here is an event. If we find a common language, they ask lots of questions, primarily about my marital status, but also about what I am doing. I don’t think anybody understands. When Africans make a trip it has a purpose, and they cannot see what purpose I have.


The most curious are the kids. Of course we cannot talk, but if I let them and their parents let them, they normally check me out. They want to shake hands then hold onto it, touch the top of my hands, and the forearms, then walk around and touch my hair.


At first I offered presents in exchange of staying in villages. Biscuits, chocolate spread, spices. Later on there wasn’t a lot to buy and I offered to pay for my stay. In the end I got a place to sleep, water, food. To my surprise they all declined.


My days were simple as well. I got up early, packed up, got on the bike, cycled until the heat forced me off the bike, then, in the afternoon, cycled a bit more and started to look for a place to spend the night. Kita is a town of some size and I stayed there for two nights, for a rest, and to do some housekeeping. The area east of Kita is a little more developed, relatively speaking, with some larger towns. I stopped for a rest when I spotted a shop with a fridge, where I usually bought a few sachets of cold water as a treat. In the absence of electricity the fridges run on gas.



My most comfortable night was probably the last one before I hit Bamako. I didn’t see the village but there was something like a rest stop, shacks selling food and drinks to the passing traffic. I sat down for a bit there, tired, then I asked whether I could spend the night there. The village was quite spread out and away from the road. They let me stay in the school. The well was next to it, so the water was unlimited, and there was a concrete floor and consequently no dirt. The headmaster stopped by in the evening to say hello, and that I should just walk over to his house in case I needed something. That particular night the sky was very clear and the star gazing almost as good as back in the Sahara. The night became later than usual, and when I woke up a boy with a bag was staring at me. Dammit. Other than what I thought they told me the evening before, there was school. I was packing in a rush under the supervisory eyes of an ever increasing crowd of children, who wanted into the school. I was half way through when a teacher showed up and chased them away. ‘Stupid Toubab’, he probably thought but let me do my thing. The headmaster later gave me a tour of the school. I had a coffee at the roadside stall then headed off, for Bamako or not, I wasn’t sure.




Education in Mali is considered the 6th worst in the world, based on what indicators I don’t know. This I thought is pretty much the bottom, considering that there are a few failed states on the planet which naturally rank lower. Primary education is mandatory in theory but this law isn’t executed. They say around 60 % of the kids go to school but this includes the Quran schools run by the Marabouts. The latter is a form of child exploitation rather than education, in the name of religion. Partially due to devoutness, but in most cases probably out of desperation parents give their children to the Marabouts who feed them and teach them the Quran but in turn have to beg for money on the street often under threat of physical harm. These kids are all over the place in Senegal, particularly in the north.


My guess was that it would take me three days from Kita to Bamako purely for the fact that I don’t like to enter big cities in the evening. It isn’t that far. Cities are a pain to navigate, and just in general more dangerous in the dark. The electricity is often not very steady so you might well end up in the complete darkness. I stopped at a shop 30 km ahead of Bamako at about two in the afternoon. I bought some cold water and asked whether I could sit down for an hour, they always let you. I was offered lunch later but declined the tea since I had decided I would give it a go into Bamako. It was all downhill from there, and I found a hotel well before sunset.


I have had a rather bad run since. I arrived on a Friday, and since I needed visas that would leave me stuck for two extra days. When I was eating a Mango in the evening something broke off my teeth. It was uncomfortable but at first I thought I could live with it. Over the next day things worsened. I certainly needed a dentist to fix it. My aching mouth ruined the weekend but on Monday I got it fixed. On Wednesday I went to the Burkina Faso embassy on the bike for my visa. It was issued on the spot. When I came back in the afternoon somebody made me aware of the gunfire and shouting in the distance. Over time it came closer. In the evening I learned that there were mutinous soldiers in town, and later that a coup d’etat was in process. The gunfire was audible all night long, sometimes it sounded pretty close. A group of portuguese people who had finished their trip went to the airport but came back later in the night without luggage. Little by little we learned that all the borders were closed, vehicles were confiscated, there was looting and muggings in town. Basically it was unsafe to stray out for too long, and probably impossible to leave the city.


Needless to say I have not done much sightseeing of the city, and there are no photos. Sub Saharan African cities are normally rather necessary than enjoyable places, so I don’t mind. I might never get round to do what little there is for tourists to see and do.


So this is where I am now, stuck in a hotel in Bamako. I am walking out briefly sometimes, for some food shopping or to a nearby pool. Now and then a woman from the German embassy is calling in to give us some information, albeit not much, the situation is unclear. There is little information we have access to and that is to the most part conflicting. I will have to wait and see.



During a more substantial excursion to Gunjur, about 50 km from Serekunda I said good bye to the ocean. This is a much less developed part of the beach. Teh day after I hit the road again and continued eastwards, upriver.




There is one road on the north bank and one on the south bank of the river, the latter was the one I used. Confined within borders that were clearly thought up in Europe the country has a north to south diameter of only maybe 50 km, or less, following the Gambia river that defines it. Its borders were drawn with a compass at the distance a cannonball could be shot when fired from an English gun located on the river. Whether this is history or legend I don’t know.


It took me a half day ride to get away from what is essentially a large metropolitan area on the south bank of the Gambia estuary. Here is where most people chose to live. The development of the capital Banjul was doomed from the beginning. It was founded in 1816 as a settlement named Bathurst on a spot that was considered suitable to establish control over the abolition of the slave trade. Population numbers swelled as freed slaves settled there. Its location in the swamps however, and persistent drainage problems make this mosquito infested town an uncomfortable place to live. Most people come in on day trips, but chose to live further west and south along the coast and its hinterland. Further on population density decreases quickly beyond the town of Brikama. And another 50 km down the road the pylons continue but the cables they are supposed to carry finish, until the row of pylons disappears as well.


I was proud about my early start out of Brikama, but I only made it to the outskirts of town. Rrratsch. My chain was torn. I needed a place to fix it instantly and found the police station which provided some shade and a bench to spread out my things. The policemen were friendly and let me do my thing. After some effort to fix the old chain I decided to put a new one on, but by the time I was finished it approached midday.


Ideally one would want to travel on a boat to take in the beauty of the river however there is no regular upriver transport. Of course there are tours, but I could not find one that would take me and my bike one way, at a reasonable cost. The road on the south bank is not particularly scenic. To reveal the beauty of the river and its tributaries one has to go off the road, just about five to ten kilometres north, and there is plenty of opportunity. A place worth mentioning is in Bintang, which is located on the Bolong river. It’s just a few kilometres off the road and built on stilts in the Mangroves.



This time the sound was familiar. Just as I hit the main road out of Bintang another spoke broke. Once more I taped it, this time in order to avoid the midday heat, and carried on. The tarmac ended soon after, but a graded road with stones on it was there, the paving imminent, which proved to be a formidable cycle path since cars couldn’t use it. What came after was a terrible ride. By now I have seen a few rough roads, but this one was by far the worst. On a bike, you only really need 25 cm of reasonable surface which is often there on the edges, but even this was rarely available on that road. It was corrugated at its full width, with plenty of potholes, some filled with deep sand hence barely visible. Needless to say I got worried about my back rim, as I negotiated this road slowly, but with considerable stress.


I consulted my guidebook for a nearby place to stay, and to replace the spoke and ended up in a town named Tendaba, right on the river, where a big camp for birdwatchers was located. It was not a place where I would have chosen to stay, but I was physically and mentally exhausted and then, they only gave me one night anyway. It was too late to either carry on or start fixing my bike and exhausted I went to the bar for a coffee and to contemplate how I would continue on this terrible road with my broken spoke.


A man shouted over a few tables and asked how the ride was. They had seen me up the road earlier. I walked over and said terrible, and started whining about my day, and the second breakdown in two days. This is how I met Paul and Axel, two expatriates living on the coast, a Brit (he sounded very English, but insisted he was a Scotsman) and a German (upper Bavarian, and I was delighted to hear familiar speech). Paul’s not closer specified court case was dragging on and Axel’s restaurant was out of business, so for some time they had found themselves doing little by day and drinking at a bar by night. To break this pattern, they had decided to go on a trip upcountry and get drunk in less familiar places. After some chatter they offered my a lift and I accepted to avoid the bad road until I could fix my spoke. Cool, I thought, sometimes problems go away that quickly. I went for dinner while Paul and Axel went for more beer.


In the morning I loaded the bike up on the roof rack but my new friends had a flat tire so they changed it and needed to replace the spare tire. While watching the guy in the roadside garage replacing their tire I thought to myself, this is why I don’t want anyone near my bike. In the absence of good equipment there was just brute force at work. We got going only by midday.


They took me all the way to Janjanbureh where we checked into a place. I did my washing while Paul and Axel went for a walk. I found them later in a bar not far from the hotel, with sixteen empty beer bottles on the table.


On the last Saturday of each month the Gambia holds Set Settal, or Operation Clean the Nation. It is a program aimed at bettering the rubbish problem and most businesses and schools close to foster cleaning of trash around compounds and in public areas. Transportation is entirely halted, including private cars and taxis, and enforced by the military. That morning I fixed my wheel. Paul and Axel were stuck until midday and had a few beers to kill the time. At one we gave our farewells and they headed off.


I did a bit of sightseeing when I took the fixed bike for a test ride in the late afternoon, the other colonial town in the country I thought might have some appeal. At least, until recently, it was named Georgetown, is located on an island in the river. There are some historically looking structures, half broken down that they try to sell as a slave house and a slave market but were in fact constructed well after slavery was abolished. The story doesn’t add up and is probably fiction. I was rather disappointed with the place.



It is very visible here, at a town of some size, that the power had stopped some 200 km ahead of there. By sunset a few generators come on and strangely light up a limited number of shops, bars and hotels, some lights here and there in the otherwise pitch black Janjanbureh night.


The easternmost border crossing I had found was near Basse Santa Su where I headed the next day. The road was good but the police got annoying. On a stretch of no more than 30 kilometres there were five roadblocks, each seeking trouble and trying to extract bribes by asking for the ‘mandatory license’ for my bike and one policeman even claimed it was an offence not to carry a fire extinguisher. They were all fairly easily sat out however over time I have to admit I got very annoyed.


I found a place for the night in a private house what is probably best described as a bed and breakfast place. I was sitting over dinner when the proprietor fetched some water and said he was going for prayer. I had forgotten about the 7 o’clock prayer and said, this time? So we chatted about prayer times for a minute, before he asked ‘Are you interested in Islam?’ ‘Yes’ I answered, meaning I like to learn and understand. ‘We can have a wander down to the mosque later and you confess.’ Oops, that was a bit quick, I thought. Later, sitting out on the street my host gave me a lesson which was quite interesting, and I found out he was the Imam. Later the chat drifted off to more mundane topics. I heard the rats in the ceiling when I retreated to bed and hoped that they would stay there when I fell asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and when I switched the light on a few of them were running away. In the entrance hall I saw someone sleeping on the floor. Strange I thought, but went for a pee and back to sleep. The next morning I got up early and found some rat droppings, my plastic bags torn and my bread half eaten. Out of the room I saw who had been sleeping on the floor and that was the landlord and his wife. Weird, I thought, renting out rooms and sleeping on the floor in the hall themselves.


The road to the border was extremely rough, or, it wasn’t really a road at all. The ten kilometres to the border took me two hours, where I got half an exit stamp because they had run out of ink, another hour of pushing across no man’s land, and I was happy to enter back into Senegal.



Gambia, or the part upcountry had been a bit of an effort. Primarily because of my breakdowns I guess, that left me in an unusually short fused mind set, but partly because I found circumstances more difficult than before on this trip. There is such stark contrast between the sparkling beach resorts in the west and the rough roads, corrupt police and lack of basic infrastructure upcountry. No major problems, all in all, but it came unexpectedly to me and it is the big contrast in such a small country that makes it strange. Since my French is strictly limited (and by then it wouldn’t have taken much to catch up to a similar level with Wolof) an ‘anglophone’ country was of course a plus. However I had the impression that the level of English most Gambians speak is significantly lower than the level of French they speak in Senegal. What was certainly not a problem, in the wide absence of taps, was the availability of water. Most is coming from communal wells (that is Saudi pumps on top of German boreholes) and you just stop in a village and fill up. Easy. And the quality is better than from the taps earlier.


After no man’s land it was back to familiar territory. The immigration process was easy, ‘Bienvenue en Senegal’, said a not overly stressed policeman lying on a bench in the shade obviously happy about some distraction. He served me a mug of water while he went off to stamp me in. In a joint effort we put some credit on my mobile phone which he had given me in exchange for my Gambian sim card. The road remained rough for another nine kilometres to Velingara before I hit an excellent tarmac road again and it was seemingly all downhill for the hundred kilometres to Tambacounda.


It was the day after the elections that I entered Senegal for the second time. Was that a smart move? Well, I had thought about this before. However the part of the country I entered is a lot more remote than the coast, and even if the outcome had sparked violence in Dakar, I deemed it was highly unlikely that these few backvelders here would start clashing with the authorities, or setting their grass thatched mud brick round houses on fire. As well, had there been trouble, they would have probably told me at the border. To bring the story about Senegal politics to an end… In Senegal, like in France, or in Austria, or many other countries where the president is determined by general elections, a candidate needs to achieve more than half of the votes. Neither of them did so there will be another round, when I don’t know but it will be well after I will have left the country.


I do my trip in sections, meaning, I only plan ahead so far and lay out particular stages. Tambacounda was the end of a stage, and when you look on a map you can understand why. It is a big junction town, where many roads come together. The next stage is from there to Bamako. There are several routes between Tambacounda and Bamako. The most obvious is the big road from Dakar, which is unappealing as probably all the lorries transporting goods from the port in Dakar further inland use it. The upside of course would be that one can safely assume it is a good paved and well travelled road. From Kayes another road branches off and continues south-eastwards from there, roughly along the Dakar-Niger Railway line. That area I hear is fairly scenic, but the road is not as good. The appeal however being that in case I lost interest, I could load the bike up and continue on the train. The Dakar-Niger Railway was something of a traveller’s classic. After decades of underinvestment and the degrading of tracks and rolling stock passenger service has come to a halt recently after an accident on the Dakar to Tambacounda section. Freight trains are still running on the line, as I could observe in Tambacounda, so this accident might just be a convenient excuse for the Canadian operator to delay major investment. Anyway, the dream is dead, for the time being, but passenger trains are still running between Kayes and Bamako hence the mentioned developments would not restrict any of my particular travel plans. The third possibility was to go south-eastwards through the Niokolo-Koba park, Senegal’s major National park and further to Kedougou, from where I would find a way into Mali. It seemed the most interesting and safest, albeit possibly also most difficult route, since maps were quite contradictory on the roads in the area. Rich’s comment on my previous blog post convinced me otherwise, he had found a new road connecting Kedougou and Kita, so my preferred route seems easier than expected and the decision was made.


I left Tambacounda after a days break on the Route National 7, that cuts through the Niokolo-Koba National Park. I didn’t get much further than 70 km though, at the Dar Salam gate I was turned away, no entry, and no traverse on a bicycle. I should have inquired beforehand. I headed back to Wassadou, where I booked a prohibitively expensive tour of the park, and they would set me off in Mako, on the other end of the park, in the evening with my bike.



We headed off early. This is Senegal’s premier national park comprising 9000 kilometres squared around the Gambia river and its tributaries, the Niokolo and the Koba rivers. It is inhabited by a number of big mammals. It doesn’t seem to be crowded with tourists, the whole day we saw no other vehicle. The landscape is pretty, with dense woods, Savannah and bamboo tunnels. I saw monkeys, baboons, warthogs, bushbucks, cobs, hippos and crocodiles. There are also lions, leopards, and elephants in the park, but those are only seen about once a year, it’s very few of them. Poaching is a problem, and, albeit nobody said this explicitly, I got the impression that the few park rangers are not greatly interested in patrolling the more remote parts of the park. It was a nice day out however it is no comparison to the parks in southern Africa. Animal sightings here are infrequent and most of them are not the more exciting ones one would expect in Africa. None of the kitties I was so throughly warned about when they denied me entrance to the park I could see. Further more much of the area around the roads was burned down. I was told this is done on purpose as a safety measure, as fires would be difficult to control in the dry season. Well, what do I know, but I wondered about the ethics of conservation, if parts of the park are set on fire on purpose.






On that note I saw several bush fires along the way. These sightings started in the Gambia, and continued in eastern Senegal. So far I could not figure out whether the grass is set on fire on purpose or by accident. I never saw people trying to extinguish them, in fact I never saw people around the fires at all.


Otherwise, in general the Savannah looks a fair bit healthier here than further north and west, where large herds of goats and sheep roam the rather bare and sandy land where only patches of very short grass remain left. Presumably a population that grows at a tropical rate consumes an increasing number of animals which in turn consume more grass, boosting desertification in the fragile Sahel where a sufficient food supply is so dependent on the scarce and unreliable rains. But what do I know? Those religious about ‘global warming’ will have a different diagnosis for the problem.



When you move up any river in the world, you invariably end up in mountainous terrain. And the ride to Kedougou was some of the most scenic, surrounded by the majestic hills, some nice bush and the road crosses the Gambia river several times. Over night I stayed on the banks of the river a lot, and regularly saw and heard the hippos which seem to be all over the place, and the occasional crocodile. It is a really attractive part of the world.




Other than expected I am still rolling on road tires. There were sections that I had wished for wider ones, particularly between Basse and Veingara, as well as further up between Toubacouta and Karrang, or just after Gandiol. None of these sections were however longer than 70 km, so I never considered it worth the effort changing the tires. On that note, my original tires, the Panasonic Tour Guard, were a disappointing piece of equipment. One ripped after less than 3000 km in the Rif Mountains, and I replaced it by a cheap chinese nylon tire. It doesn’t fit perfectly and wobbles a bit when fully inflated, but I think it was me who screwed it, never fold a tire that isn’t foldable. However by now it has made over 4000 km on worse roads already, and there was only one puncture. On a different, but still technical note… I had two broken spokes in relatively short time and I have the nasty feeling it was not the last one. I have no idea why spokes break, so I don’t know what to do to avoid it in the future. If anybody has an idea, please get in touch.


The last city of significance in eastern Senegal is Kedougou, where I am typing these lines. It’s hard to believe though, as this is a collection of traditional houses and dusty roads, with little infrastructure. From here I will find the sparkling new road, and will head further eastwards towards Bamako.

About the Baobabs in the Savannah and the White Sandy Beaches

My departure from Gandiol, and Saint Louis respectively, was not an easy one. After three weeks in the area I had something that could almost be called a life there. I knew where to go for a good breakfast, I had a regular place for lunch, had been invited now and then by a local family and was a regular at the Thursday night jazz performances on a riverboat. And, not least, the place where I stayed is an absolute paradise spot. Needless to say, my planned departure date got delayed beyond the receipt of my parcel, but finally I made it back into the saddle moving further towards the sun.




A nice feature in Senegal is the kilometre markers along most roads so that in the general absence of signposts giving directions you know at least on which road you are. A rough piste took me to a town named Potou. Until I hit the town of course I did not know for sure whether I was on the right road. Asking for directions, and especially distances in Africa can be frustrating. ‘Not far’ is a terribly overused answer. I asked a man whether this was the road for Leona, a town shown on my map. He said yes, and that it was only seven kilometres away. Nice, I thought, being surprised about his precise answer. A few kilometres down the road, I asked another man, who confirmed it was the right road, then on my departure, he said, it’s seven kilometres. Well. After about another ten kilometres I asked again, this time for the distance. ‘It’s only seven kilometres’. This was when I decided to stop asking. I measured 28 kilometres, eventually. From Potou an excellent, seemingly new tarmac road took me back to Louga on the main highway. I have encountered many new roads in Senegal so far, most of which had a sign there telling they were financed by the European Union.


Originally, I had decided not to go into Dakar. Big cities are never nice to cycle, and just a pain to get in and out. And, they are usually not that attractive and unless it is necessary to go in I rather stay out. Further more due to the upcoming elections and the controversial ruling of the constitution commission on the candidacy of the current president, demonstrations and consequently road closures are frequent in and around Dakar. However Dakar, or the Cap Vert peninsular on which the city is located is Africa’s westernmost point so it had some appeal. In Thies however I learned that there was a train departing early in the morning and going back in the evening so, at eight o’clock in the evening I changed my mind and decided to head for the capital the next morning.


The train was not precisely fast, it does the 60 km trip in about two and a half hours, but it is reliable, comfortable, and air conditioned. It was actually freezing cold in there. In Dakar I went to see the Austrian consul with whom I had e-mailed back and forth in the weeks before and who had invited me to a visit. I spent most of the morning there and we had a good chat. I had lunch in a sparkling cafe in the area where I was served very western food for very western prices. One of the main sights for the visitor in Dakar is the Ile de Goree, an island just off the coast from Dakar. In history slaves were traded on its markets and shipped to the Americas from there. I decided that the hassle at the point where the boats for island depart was probably only a blink of what was going on there and I decided not to go but rather have a wander around town before heading back to Thies.




Already before I hit Thies I encountered the first Baobab trees. Further on through some areas they occurred so frequently it almost looked like a forest of them. The tree behaves much like a succulent storing large amounts of water hence the size of its trunk varies seasonally. The bark is fire resistant and used for cloth and rope, the leaves as a vegetable and the fruit can be eaten or cooked to a jam, that was sometimes offered to me by Europeans in the area. To me it is the quintessentially African tree. And they are each so different, it seems there are no two of them looking alike.




A short ride of about 50 km took me to Mbour, which my guidebook sold for its beach. Frankly, it’s not at all that attractive. I was pushing my bike through the deep sand towards a hotel which I wanted to check out when I was approached by a young man. He seemed very friendly and interested in my trip, and wanted to drink tea. I said I would come back after I had checked the hotel out. I would find him at the shop, he said. Instantly I played my program for the hassling shopkeepers, no I wouldn’t buy anything, and even looking will waste each others time, didn’t you see I am travelling on a bicycle? He looked at me squarely and said, no, you don’t buy anything, we will buy you a tea. I felt like an idiot and wandered off. I went to the shop after an hour, and had a small crowd of people welcoming me. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting outside the shop (which turned out to be a grocery shop) and enjoyed the chatter.


Together with Francois who had approached me the day before and Antoine, a friend of his I headed off for Fadiouth the next day. It is an Island off the coast just outside of the Sine-Saloum Delta. It is really a pile of seashells which were deposited there over what must be centuries and eventually a town was built on it. The seashells still continue to pile up since large quantities of mussels are peeled and dried in the sun there. Both of my new friends had family there, and I was shown around, fed well, and introduced to what must be half of the town. It was a great day out.





I saw a bunch of pigs on the roadside, and I stopped to take a photo. A pig? Well, it needed some soul searching before I understood it myself. After months of travelling through countries which are almost exclusively inhabited by Muslims (or in the case of Mauritania where it is the state religion) a pig is actually an odd sight. As well Senegal is a predominantly but by far not exclusively Muslim country. Along the coast and in the Sine Saloum Delta there is a very obvious Christian population.


Soon, I spotted churches asides from the mosques, heard bells ringing on Sunday. On closer inspection, in the mixed towns there are shops with a cross on them presumably meaning they are run by a Christian. Admittedly it seems what is on offer there is mainly booze. Religion seems to filter into peoples’ names too. While Christians’s first names seem to be European like Francois and Antoine, followed by an African middle and family name, Muslims’ first names are more on the lines of Mustaffa or Mohammed (Modu being the very common and pretty cool Wolof abbreviation for the latter).


I cycled through the Sine Saloum delta with its rich birdlife, being particularly rich this time of the year when the local bird population is boosted by large numbers of migratory birds from Europe. It is a vast area of floodplains around the estuaries of the Sine and the Saloum rivers overgrown with dense forest and mangrove. On top of the birds I frequently spotted monkeys as well, they all being too fast for the camera however.






As usual I headed off early to reach the border, and practiced my smile a few times on the last few kilometres. Entering the Gambia turned out to be a bit of a hassle. It was not the immigration process itself. I was stamped out by the Senegalese police, interviewed and stamped in by the Gambian authorities, and all this without a no man’s land in between. As I headed off a woman stepped into my way holding the identity card of the drug police in my face. And there I was. She took my passport, directed me and my bike into the back yard pointed at the rear left pannier bag and told me to open it. I offered to unpack it (what I prefer doing myself), she and her male colleague who had turned up agreed and the lengthy process started. They throughly searched my toiletries, cables, asked questions about unfamiliar items like the spoke key, commented on clothes, and I kept smiling and cooperating. We were through bag number two when she started to drop hints about presents, while at the same time waving with my passport and performing the globally understood gesture for money. I ignored it, and kept unpacking, smiling, and telling anecdotes about one or another item. The last pannier bag contained my medication. Another thorough check, another time hinting a bribe. By now I could have jumped into her face, but I maintained my smile. Finally, after one and a half hours I had sat it out, my passport was handed back to me, I was allowed to pack my bags again. I thanked them thoroughly, for what I didn’t know, shook hands, and cycled off.


Twenty kilometres down the road I hit the Gambia river at a town named Barra, which really is only important for the ferry to Banjul, Gambia’s tiny capital. I had very friendly and curious company during the long wait. Two ferries are commuting back and forth, the trip normally taking an hour, I was told, but the ferry on approach was a particularly slow one. Car space is strictly limited and if you arrive on a car you normally have to wait for two or three ferries to depart until it’s your turn. Lorries can wait for days. Once more it was much easier on the bike. I had to wait for three hours until the ferry arrived.


The usual mess evolved when the ferry arrived. I pushed my way through and was given a little space in the front by the stairs for the bike. I strapped it to the railing blocking most of the staircase as well as the access to the passenger lounge on the vehicle level. Intuitively I would not have chosen that spot myself but the load manager was happy. The boat is supposed to be propelled by four engines of which only one was working. It’s casing had been taken off and it was spitting large quantities of engine oil onto the floor making it very slippery. Chocks to secure the cars and donkey carts were unheard of. The railing was severely degraded by rust and some parts were missing. Essentially, it was a health and safety inspector’s wet dream. Quickly the passenger decks filled up and then also the space between the cars filled with people, animals and cargo to a state of severe overcrowding.


The boat reached Banjul after one and a half hours, which I presumed was not too bad given that a guy was busy handling the only working engine full time during the entire sailing. The sun was low by then and I got a bit nervous about reaching my goal for the day, Serrekunda, before dark. It took some time to find a working cash dispenser in Banjul, then I raced on. I arrived before dark and have stayed at the local campground since what gave me a good base for exploration in the area.


I was surprised to learn how touristy Senegal is, however this is all dwarfed by the Gambia. With its broad white Atlantic beaches which are for the most part safe for swimming, and a climate similar to the Caribbean it attracts large numbers of package tourists from Europe. Towns like Fajara, Bakau, Kololi, Kotou are formidable tourist resorts with all the facilities and comforts you could think of. It looks like a great winter sun destination to me easily accessible offering western comforts and probably just exotic enough for those who don’t want to look Africa into the eye.




In the past decades however partly due to natural reasons, but mostly due to illegal sand mining to build houses and hotels much of Gambia’s beaches disappeared. With beach tourism being a large part of the economic livelihood of this country they made the smart move of bringing in a bunch of Dutch engineers to fix it, and reclaim their beaches, and by now each coastal town has its sandy strip back.


On a different note, sex tourism here is a big thing, and this is mostly female sex tourism. European women being intimate with local men are a frequent sight throughout the tourist resorts. The provider of the service being a fair bit younger and healthier than the customer, who, aside from the racial differences, in most cases could be his mother.


Over dinner at the campground I met Jack, a Dutch guy who had bought land and was in the process of building a house in the Cassamance, the part of Senegal south of the Gambia. He invited me to come to his house with him, which is only 70 km away from Serrekunda. I wanted to go but since I need a visa to enter Gambia exiting the country briefly isn’t that easy for me. Well, there is no official border crossing anyway, he told me, so I could come without screwing my visa. He had done it a hundred times, nothing ever happened, and I would just have to say this and that to the official. Hell, it’s border jumping I argued, but my curiosity won and I was finally talked into it and we headed off.


An hour’s taxi ride with several police, a military and an immigration roadblocks took us to the river which marks the border between Gambia and Senegal. I left it to Jack to handle it. A guy with a dug out canoe takes you across and after another seven kilometres on a sand track I was at Jack’s house in the woods. In the afternoon he showed me around what is a proper paradise spot. Only a short walk through rice fields, across dunes and through Mangroves took us to a wide, white sandy beach, with nobody around. It is properly amazing place. It was worth all the illegality of the trip.






I was of course by myself on the way back. Jack took me back to the river. This time another guy with a dug out canoe was there. He had life vests on it, and he insisted that we used them. At least my and my fellow border jumpers’ personal safety was taken care of. I couldnt help but smiling to myself. Both the military and the immigration officers along the road noticed that I was coming back by myself whereas when I headed out there was another guy with me. I answered as Jack had instructed me to, blatantly lying into the guy’s face while I tried to hide the shaking and my heart sank into my boots. I am not good at that. I don’t think I will do this kind of thing again.


My trip southwards ends here, for the time being since I will turn east from here and continue up the Gambia river, then towards Tambacounda, from where I will need to find a suitable road towards Bamako. Planning routes is one of the major delights of road travel.


Big Changes… Into Sub-Saharan Africa

I stayed in Nouakchott for four days. The ‘weekend’ here is Friday and Saturday so things started to happen again on Sunday. Most of them in the mornings since the afternoons got uncomfortably hot and dusty. I had decided to try to get as many visas as possible so that I would not have to go into Dakar further down the road, what, given the recent developments is probably a good thing. Besides the trips to the embassies I was hanging out with Steve a lot, who was chasing visas too, and in between sampled the local cuisine. For the first time the dishes served at the restaurants looked properly African however none of them I learned were very Mauritanian.



The highlight was the visa for the Gambia. Austrian passport holders have drawn the short straw here, we are some of the very few Europeans who need a visa to enter the country. As I presented myself at the embassy, the secretary seated me and we exchanged about five minutes of polite conversation before I was asked what they could do for me. Get me a visa, what else? I filled out the form, then was informed the consul would decide on my application within fifteen minutes, and the fee would only be charged in case it was granted. I was directed to a luxurious waiting room, where I watched Al Jazeera for about half an hour before the secretary returned with a file. ‘I am sorry, I have bad news. We cannot grant you the visa because there is a mistake which we call the sleepiness of the pen’. Instead of the 25th January 2012 I had put in the 25th January 2011 as an entry date. This is diplomacy, I thought. I corrected it, he smiled and headed off once more. Only two minutes. After another hour of lying on the couch and some more news consumption, he returned, once more being sorry that it took a few minutes longer but the good news was, he said, that the decision about my visa was positive. I was handed a receipt that was so large and colourful I thought I might frame and display it when I get settled again. I was asked to return the next morning to pick it up. In fact however, if I would like to stay longer in this air conditioned luxury I was welcome to do so, ‘this is your home’. I was close to asking whether they would allow me to move in. The next day, after another five minutes of polite small talk I was sent to the waiting room once more to wait for two minutes, and after about one and a half hours I got my visa. We shook hands, I told the secretary that if everybody in the Gambia was as friendly as he, I could not wait to visit, and headed off from probably the funniest encounter with a government agency I have ever had in my life.


I didn’t leave Nouakchott very early, eventually. I had a lengthy breakfast, messed around on the internet, said a lengthy good bye to Steve, who was heading east deeper into the Sahara while I was heading south out of it. The four days break had lifted my spirits and I was eager to go, the Senegal river only 200 km down the road, towards a new country, and out of the sand. In the late morning I was ready to take on that final stretch through the desert. I would cycle all day, sleep at the roadside, and in two or three days I would be out. My plan was to cross into Senegal at the Barrage de Diama border crossing. The road there would not only be substantially shorter, it would take me along the river and through two National parks too. It would also avoid crossing the border in Rosso, a place which I had learned was notorious for its corrupt officials. The only downside is it is a piste rather than a sealed road.


Out of the city it was only a few hours until, slowly, my surroundings changed as, very occasionally first, long absent trees became part of the landscape again. By the second day I found myself surrounded by a semi desert. That is, sand with trees. I was still struggling along slowly with a firm headwind and the frequent sandblast. However after the break and the manageable distance ahead I was in good spirits and whatever the difficulty was it didn’t matter. Given the circumstances I made good progress.




When motorists tell you a road is bad, it does not necessarily have to be that bad when you travel on a bicycle. A large number of potholes on a tar road may be easy on a bike, the biggest annoyance being the cars having a much harder time to negotiate them and hence moving a lot slower and much more errand than one can do on the bike. It is a similar situation when there are stones lying on an otherwise smooth dirt track. However on a bike one can only tolerate a very limited amount of sand, and a good piste for a motorist may be an absolute no go for the cyclist.


I turned onto the piste for Diama late on the second day. For about 500 m I inspected it by look and (uncontrolled) touch before I decided it was not traversable on the bicycle. I turned around and headed for Rosso. For the last time I slept at the Gendarmerie roadblock about 30 km ahead of the border.


Day three brought another welcome change when patches of grass grew larger and I finally I found myself surrounded by grassland. I was finally and certainly out of the Sahara. That last few hours in Mauritania were strange however. There was a strong easterly wind and it was properly hot already in the morning. The visibility was very poor. The sky was all red and albeit there was not a single cloud the sun was barely visible. The air was filled with sand, a fine dust that in covered everything. I am sure most of my readers have experienced the Saharan dust clouds that occasionally hit the Alps and very occasionally even northern Europe, particularly in spring. This was a bit like it, just a lot more severe. I saw similar weather once more in Senegal, when I was not cycling.


I headed off early into the headwind and only after a few kilometres an unfamiliar sound erupted from the rear of my bike, followed by a wobbly onward ride. On closer inspection, I noticed what I had suspected, a spoke had snapped. Desperate to reach the border before they close for midday I taped it and moved on but decided to take the little detour once I would be in Senegal and stop in Richard Toll to replace it.


With regards to hassle Rosso is possibly the world capital. This is people who claim to facilitate the border crossing, and money changers. Unfortunately I was in need of the services of the latter since I still had a wad of Ouguiyas in my pocket and it was a Friday, hence the bank was closed. I found myself a bit intimidated when all of the sudden I was encircled by a crowd of about about 20 young men all being eager for business. ‘Do you want to change money?’ ‘Give me a break, man.’ Five minutes passed, but the crowd remained in place, in silence. ‘You want to change money now?’ ‘Yes. What’s your rate?’ ‘How much do you have?’ ‘None of your business. What exchange rate do you give me?’ ‘How much do you have?’ Irritated, and slightly intimidated I broke out of that crowd that besieged me. Somehow I talked my way into the closed bank nearby. The clerk wasn’t particularly excited to see me in there but finally consulted his computer and wrote the official exchange rate on a piece of paper and the range I should look for to get in the streets.


Different to what I heard from veteran travellers to West Africa the border crossing itself was perfectly swift for me. No man’s land this time was just the river which I crossed on a pirogue in five minutes. The change from Mauritania into Senegal could not have been any bigger. For starters, there was no more sand. I headed for Richard Toll, what was about a 20 km detour for a break and to fix the bike. The town isn’t anything special but still it was all different. There was music in the evening, and colourfully dressed and smiley people. I don’t know what it is, it seems people here enjoy life just a lot more. It is a whole different atmosphere.



In reflection, Mauritania, or the part I went through leaves me a bit startled. In my memory, it was all a bit grey. Even beyond the unforgiving landscape there was very little colour, no music, few smiles. People were very hospitable with me, where I wanted to sleep I got a good spot, was usually given food and water. It was certainly a higher degree of hospitality from strangers compared to what you would in most cases experience in Europe. Beyond this however it was very earnest, with little talking or friendly gestures. Further more, the way people are dressed was certainly a bit intimidating to me. With their long robes and headscarfs you don’t see a lot more that the eyes of many people. Having spent three weeks in the desert it is completely clear how their dress developped, the space between their ears would otherwise by now be filled with sand. However it creates an air of distance and unapproachability, as all the mimic and munch of the body language is cut out. But then, if you are a desert dweller, you probably cannot be very dependent on interaction with other humans anyway. My guidebook said one of the most interesting things about visiting Mauritania is that you see the transition from North Africa to Sub Saharan Africa. In my experience, this place was just very different all together. Morocco and Senegal are by no means similar, but I experienced both places as colourful, welcoming and friendly, in their particular ways, while in Mauritania, I felt alien and for most of the time cut out of the world.


Of course it was not all grey. I had this endless and very pleasant conversation about life and religion with Gabriel, a student who approached me when I was sitting around in front of the main post office in Nouakchott. A man went well out of his way to guide me to a public phone which I couldn’t find. And I had a great time over lunch with Oumar, an impressively educated office worker with whom I am still e-mailing back and forth.


Wherever you travel in sub Saharan Africa get used to be called a foreigner. It started in Nouakchott, at the fishing port. ‘Toubab’ said a teenage boy with a jerrycan clearly addressing me, before he held out a small fish. I contemplated for a few seconds whether I wanted it, but decided I wouldn’t have it, wouldn’t want a fish at all. He held out a different one. I declined once more. Only when I walked away I realised the unavoidable had happened… In the meanwhile, it has become part of the soundtrack on the road. Whenever I get near a village I come to hear it, and a bunch of kids running towards me, waving and shouting ‘Toubab, Toubab!’ until I wave back.


A broken spoke is a nasty repair. Replacing it is easy and quick however then, in all likelihood the wheel is not perfectly round, or ‘true’ in cycling talk, any more. Truing a wheel is a little more difficult, and it requires a lot of patience and is very time consuming.


With the spoke replaced I headed off to Saint Louis, about hundred something kilometres down the road. Saint Louis was the first French settlement in Africa and during its heyday the capital of their colonies called Afrique Occidental, French West Africa. The historic centre was built on an island in the Senegal river which it has of course long outgrown. Like most other colonial towns and cities I have seen so far it is sort of a dream town. Dreamt up and planned in Europe and then placed into a beautiful tropical spot. Nicely decorated houses with patios and balconies surrounded by gardens with palms, mighty administrative buildings, some bars, hotels, a theatre and a park. Today some of these buildings are beautifully restored while others are crippling in a dire state of disrepair. It is a relaxed place with a comfortable pace. Wandering through the narrow streets and hanging out in the cafes certainly give a feeling of its passed glory and the difficult encounter of cultures.





I left after two days to a village named Gandiol about 20 km south, where I have stayed since on the beach under palms. Truing my back wheel once more I noticed the loss of my tools. Whether I forgot to pack them or someone found them before I lost them I don’t know. The truth is I was careless back in Richard Toll and as a consequence it’s gone. A small problem now would leave me stuck at the roadside, so I chose to give myself a longer break and wait for the parcel with the replacements for all my essential losses so far. For the past days I could not believe how lazy I have been, just hanging out at the beach and a trip to town every now and then.



I have been in and around Saint Louis for more than a week now, and my stay will be longer, until my parcel arrives. Yesterday, I caught a fellow Toubab carrying a parcel that was mailed in the US out of the post office. I asked how long he had been waiting for it and he told me two weeks. Inshallah.

The long ride through the desert

It was about a half day ride across some still relatively green mountains that took me from Sidi Ifni back to the RN 1 which would take me all the way to the Mauritanian border. My Sahara leg I had defined as the about 1700 km long distance between Guelmim and Nouakchott.


At Guelmim, my door to the desert, I stopped only to stock up on food and water and then headed off into this world of rocks and sand, this vast emptiness of a size beyond imagination. In the north there is still a reasonable population what meant I came across a town each day, most of them small though. I took it in steps of about 100 km per day first, what soon proved inefficient due to the strong north-easterly wind which pushed me along. I could easily maintain 30 to 40 km/hr for sustained periods, and I decided I would plan for bigger days.


The road cuts through a vast area of what is locally called hammada. It is a featureless, arid, inhospitable and uninviting landscape. Sometimes the ocean is visible but rarely the coast itself which is about 50 to 100 meters down a steep edge. At first now and then the road crossed dry river beds surrounded by dunes some of which hosting flamingo populations. The few towns here are rather functional administrative centres and short of specific sights.




The one worth mentioning is Tarfaya, the place where pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery lived and dreamed up his popular story ‘The Little Prince’. A monument was erected in his memory, a Breguet 14 biplane, the sort of plane he used to fly on the airmail route from Toulouse to Saint Louis.



A map printed outside of Morocco will show the Western Sahara as its own country, or disputed territory, which comprises largely of the former Spanish colony named Spanish Sahara. When it was abandoned as a colony Morocco raised claim on it and poured in a large number of troops to stamp out resistance. The UN brokered a ceasefire but the promised referendum has yet to materialise. Morocco has strengthened its hold ever since pouring money into large infrastructure projects and attracting people from the north to live here tax free. Most western governments regard the status of the Western Sahara as ‘undetermined’. Morocco treats it as an integrated part of the country. Whatever the complicated geopolitical status, to the traveller it is much a continuation of Morocco. There is no sign as to when you enter the Western Sahara, and in most cases luckily people are just as open and hospitable as further north in Morocco.


From what I could see the economic activity here is very limited, limited by the harsh surroundings. Most towns aren’t much beyond a petrol station, shop, cafe and restaurant serving to the passing traffic. Add a hotel or two and a campground to the larger ones. Presumably the occasional herds of dromedaries, and the very occasional goats belong to someone. I heard about phosphate mining and some off shore oil exploration.


I spent Christmas in Laayoune, a modern and large city, by far the largest in the Western Sahara. I splashed out on a nice hotel as my Christmas treat, and it wasn’t difficult to find decent food. Around me was of course not the slightest hint of Christmas, no decoration, no celebrations. It was just another busy evening as I had seen so many in Moroccan cities. I had a few phone calls with family and close friends then went to enjoy my posh hotel room. Earlier, I had thought I would be a bit sad that day, but I wasn’t. I was actually quite happy.


Further on I made excellent progress. The strong north-easterly wind allowed for high speeds most of the time. Only when the road turns and twists, what happens occasionally there were some more exhausting stretches, most of them were short though. All the forthcoming depends on what direction of the wind you are facing. Temperatures were relatively pleasant by day, probably not higher than 30 degrees, albeit it is really cold over night and in the mornings. Daylight starts only by about eight and between nine and ten the sun is high enough so that it is comfortable. The increased weight from the water I carried was dragging a bit. On top of the water bottles I usually carry I have one 1.5 litre bottle strapped to each pannier bag and another 5 litre container on the front rack.




After a break day in Boujdor I had what was probably my roughest night so far. Lacking of any shelter, or features in the landscape to hide I asked at a petrol station whether they would allow me to pitch the tent up behind it. They insisted however that I slept in front of it, claiming this was safer, as they were open all night and had security. Like most properties it was walled for the wind but this one wasn’t planned very well and the wind was blowing inside the walls as well. Hence it proved a challenge to pitch the tent up in the howling wind, and of course it was impossible to use the poles on the tarmac. When I went to sleep I was not expecting a quiet night but the noise was still massive. Each lorry that called in sounded as if it would soon run over me, and most drivers did what the local drivers do, honk their horns on arrival. I managed a few hours of sleep before in the morning I was woken up by rifle fire. When I poked my head out to see what was going on a guy was out shooting the straying dogs. Slightly confused the first question that came to my mind was what dinner they had served me the previous night. But then I remembered Muslims can only eat herbivores, and they probably hadn’t been waiting for the first foreigner to pass by so I decided I was safe. I was done with this doubtful rest though, and as usual, rough nights are good for early starts.




As well I noticed that I had lost an essential item back in Boujdor and decided to backtrack and search for it. I found an empty lorry going the other direction which gave me a lift. Well, my loss turned out to be final but back at the campsite in met Steve, a friendly English guy who gave me a lift back to the Dakhla intersection with my bike on the roof.


Now that there is only one road left I meet a lot more travellers. There are plenty of people in camping vans fleeing the European winter. Others are on motorcycles or 4WDs, many having a trans African route in mind. Most of them are French but I also met Brits, Germans, Austrians, and Czechs. Motorists kept telling me that there is another cyclist not far behind me, I still don’t know who this was, but it was good to know that I am not alone.


New Years Eve was a funny night too. I passed a walled house in the middle of nowhere. A guy came out and waved at me and I stopped and after some chatting I thought I could as well ask whether he would let me pitch up the tent on or behind the property. It was late in the afternoon and I had almost done my planned distance for the day. He seemed happy with having a guest and I was given an empty room with a rug to sleep at what was obviously a road maintenance facility. He made tea for me and soon two road workers came. They fetched me for more tea in what was sort of a living room with mats and cushions laid out. I was not allowed to enter however before I had washed my hands and my face, and then was once more directed back to wash my feet, and my hands again under the supervisory eyes of one of them. Then I was allowed to lie down with the others. There was a charcoal stove in the middle and tea was poured ceremonially. In fact hours were spent on pouring tea into cups and back in the kettle, brick sized clusters of sugar thrown in and every half hour or so a glass of tea would fall out of the process. This was however by no means a quiet setting. One guy was glued to his mobile phones heaving loud conversations while smoking considerable amounts of funny smelling stuff while the other two in turns got up for prayer and me, the only quiet one, I really enjoyed being in the middle of it. I was given food later and by about ten I retreated to my room to sleep.


The traffic became extremely light after Dakhla. This is generally a good thing since cars are the natural enemy of the cyclist, but it also made me feel more lonely at times. Towns that were on my map weren’t there in the real world.


I had another break at the Motel Barbas, a well known hotspot for overlanders. It is a pretty lonely outpost in the middle of nowhere about 80 km north of the Mauritanian border. By then the Sahara had come upon me. Physically, this stretch is not all that difficult. It’s flat, the road is good and there is some sort of supplies available every 150 km or so. But it became more difficult mentally. It was the same, long and lonely cycle every day with minimal changes in my surroundings, and distances here are staggering. Days blurred into each other and so did the overnight spots. Loneliness struck and I got homesick.


Closer to the border the landscape became more attractive, however with all the mine warning signs straying off the road would not have been all too smart. I arrived at the border in the afternoon where I had a few hours to chat with the stranded lorry drivers. These are the same guys that threaten me on the road, I thought, but they were a lot kinder when not driving.




The next morning I got into the queue, where drivers quickly suggested I get in front since customs wouldn’t bother me anyway. The police stamped me out, then I had to register with the military and gendarmerie before I was given way into the no man’s land between the countries. It is a sandy piste first, that divides into a number of meagre tracks after about a kilometre. I tried to follow the cars but this wasn’t easily possible, since through the sand I had to push quite a bit. It is heavily mined, so you don’t want to get it wrong. It is ridiculous. There is an all sealed road across the Sahara, but for whatever conflict nobody wants to put tarmac onto this tiny stretch. Or clear the mines at least. But then, no man’s land is only about 4 km long and all in all it is less scary than I thought it would be.


Entering Mauritania was an earnest process but easy enough still. The first town I reached was Bou Lannouar, about 50 km after the border, and it was evening by then since I had been slowly struggling against the wind. From roughly the border onwards two new dimensions entered the game, the headwind and the ubiquitous sand. Sand all over my clothes and skin, sand in the face, sand in the eyes, sand stuck to the handles, sand filled shoes, and another sandblast whenever a lorry passed. Sand in the food and eventually sand in the sleeping bag.


Besides the elements there are other complications with travelling in Mauritania. Due to the security situation you think twice about wild camping anyway. The government however is desperate to keep the route safe. There is a gendarmerie roadblock at least every 50 km, and when you pass one you are registered and the next one is informed you are coming. I heard stories of travellers who didn’t make it to the next roadblock in time and slept somewhere in between with the result that the gendarmerie came searching for them. Certainly there is pressure to keep moving.


A few hours past Bou Lannouar, with sand all over me and fighting the headwind I probably hit the absolute low point. At one stage a thought crossed my mind. What if Steve would pass by and offer me a lift? Would I say yes and stop suffering or no and stick to do every meter on the bike? But then, I was fantasizing, by then he was well ahead of me.


A few hours later I heard the horn and a familiar car stopped at the roadside ahead of me. I couldn’t believe it was Steve, and he offered me a lift. It took a few minutes to make up my mind but I went for it.


I am typing this from Nouakchott, where my arbitrarily defined Sahara leg finished. I arrived here dirty, salt stained and covered in sand. I had never planned to stay here for any substantial time, but I needed the break. I am not yet out of the desert, but the Senegal river is about 200 km down the road from here so it can’t be far any more. I pushed it through the desert because I wanted to get through it, and I am through and happy. And the break is doing me good.


There is not a lot to see in Nouakchott but I am still not disappointed. It is a unique place. It is probably what comes out when nomads decide to build a capital. It is only 50 years old and albeit only 5 km from the beach the centre faces the desert. There are no great sights, if any specific ones, but therefore a lot of heat and dust. People in blue robes and headscarfs are roaming the streets, whose fathers and grandfathers may well have not been settled yet. Albeit it does not look as open and friendly as in much of Morocco on first glance I have met some genuinely nice people here. It is a relaxed enough place however to sort things out, do some shopping and house keeping, go visa hunting, and hang out, there is no hassle whatsoever. And for a novice western traveller like me it is a random enough place so that I am proud I have visited. (I admit the photos are a little meagre, they don’t like cameras here so I had to be discreet)




Besides the vast emptiness the thing I will remember most of the Sahara I think is the wind. It is strong wind, and constantly strong, no such thing as gusts. It’s nice on the bike as long as it blows from behind but something to get used to when off the bike. It teaches you all new ways of pitching up a tent, preparing a sandwich, and be extremist about having your bags closed. The biggest delight is probably the star gazing by night. There are many of them, the sky is all glitter. It’s really amazing. And for the first time in my life I saw the zodiacal light.


I am very proud that my bike has never let me down either. There was not a single breakdown, and a recent check revealed no technical issues. It was suffering though, the chain ring shows noticeable signs of wear now which I assume originate from the sand the chain attracts. As soon as I am out of the sand, it will get a good clean.


By now it is hot, and wandering around Nouakchott in the afternoon hours is quite uncomfortable. My departure will be early in the morning, and I will need to plan for a break after midday. However this may well become a pattern across West Africa.






The High Atlas and Beyond

My surroundings changed after leaving Marrakech. I didn’t notice it instantly. A cyclist has to be very alert when negotiating the traffic out of a big city, what leaves little attention for the surroundings. Then, there are are vast palm and olive groves around the city, completely artificial, due to a centuries old underground irrigation system.


I cycled further westwards along a secondary road. To my left, in the distance was the mighty snow capped High Atlas what made for excellent views. Between it and the flat road I was following there was a lot of nothing. The landscape had definitely turned more arid, and mostly it was open, rocky space. Now and then there were shepherds with their sheep and goats, but few other people. What food in particular the animals found there I don’t know, but these guys I guess aren’t beginners. Some patches looked like a plough had gone through. With all the rocks in the soil this looked a bit like a mystery to me, they must have strong donkey around here.


The further I went the more obvious change became to me. It was not only the landscape that had changed. There was change in people. Their skin was darker, and they were more colourfully dressed, especially the women. All heads were covered, either with a straw hat or turban. There was a change in architecture. Farm houses in perfectly geometrical shape, mostly painted pink, and later entire towns of these pink cubic houses. This looked no longer like Arabia, this was Berber as I learned.



The further west I got the lower the mountains to my left, and by about midday there weren’t a lot of snowy caps any more. I had planned three days from Marrakesh over the high Atlas.


I contemplated my route across the High Atlas over breakfast in Imi n’Tanoute. Well, to be fair, the route I had chosen could probably be named the High Atlas for wimps, compared to the mighty passes further east, but it was nevertheless 140 km long, lead over two passes and from what I could tell had an accumulated climb of well over 2000 m vertical. I headed off across a predictably steep road however with marvellous surroundings. First most mountains were red on the bottom and yellow on top, what was soon replaced by an all red landscape. I stopped for photos frequently but thought it would be hard to catch this experience with a camera.




What surprised me was how well the cycling went. One thing I have learned in the past 3500 km is that the surface of the road has a major impact on the forthcoming. The tarmac on this road was especially good. Traffic was very light. On the way up I had just a short break for my second breakfast but otherwise kept going, slowly but steadily. I made good progress on the first downhill stretch. I kept going and going through this amazing red rocky world. There was of course the second uphill. Another road that crossed several times was painfully wrong on my map, so for much of the way it was difficult to locate myself. Hence, I had little idea when the second uphill stretch would begin. Well, I was apparently in the middle of it, when my sugar levels called the shots and I stopped for food.


The shopkeeper told me it would be only 2 km more uphill, and well, it was steep but the truth is one can always cycle another 2 km. It was 3 km, half an hour, but what did this matter? Once I was on top, I had all the way down to the ocean ahead of me. And it was a memorable downhill stretch. As a matter of fact, it was an hour of freewheeling, and another hour of virtual free-wheeling. It was probably the large distance I made in these two hours that convinced me I might make it all the way to Agadir. The sun was low but I went for it. I arrived just after dark, hungry and exhausted but no less happy. After all the most significant mountain range of my trip was behind me. I will most probably miss the scenery, at times, but then, in a way, it was a milestone too.


In terms of the effective climate classification by Kppen and Geiger by having crossed the High Atlas I left what is referred to as the ‘temperate and mesothermal’ or ‘C’ climates and entered the ‘arid and semiarid’ or ‘B’ climates. And while the Christmas storms sweep across Europe I resorted to protecting myself from the elements as well in the form of a hat and sunscreen. My steadily increasing water intake on the road has resulted in an ever growing collection of plastic bottles.


The big seller in Agadir is its long, crescent shaped, fine sandy beach which is sheltered even when the large Atlantic waves crash to the land elsewhere. In what seemed to be a complete absence of western package tourists it was certainly easy to make an excellent deal on accommodation, but life still proved a bit expensive here. After I arrived I thought about cooking my pasta on the balcony, but convenience won and I went to a restaurant. To give anyone who doesn’t know Morocco well an idea. For a two course meal and a tea at a restaurant on the roadside, or in a country town I expect to pay anything between 30 and 50 Dirhams. Prices here are times three. I certainly felt a bit ripped off. Food shopping for two days, what typically contains of two or three flat breads, a bag of pasta, tomato puree three cans of tuna, some tangerines, yoghurt and biscuits rarely sets me back more than 20 Dirhams. I was up to 170 in a shop here, albeit this included the rare treat of two beers. At the time of writing 1 Euro equals about 11.30 Dirhams.


It was not necessarily by choice that I went to Agadir. I had to get some important documents couriered, and therefore I needed a big city. Two days in the enclave of western tourists, however also bore some advantages. Besides French I could also speak German and English, or a combination of either two, the main course was served after the starter and beer was available in any shop and carrying it out didn’t earn me any strange looks. And the beach is certainly nice.


I left Agadir on the N1, the road on which I will spend most of my remaining time in Morocco. It lead through an uninspiring though surprisingly green area first. Later on there wasn’t much apart from gravel, rocks and scrubs any more. Traffic was heavy and the cycling anything but nice. For the time being there wasn’t a lot of future for me on this road and I turned onto a secondary one towards the coast. Once more there were mountains, and I crossed what I think is technically the Anti Atlas, but compared to the mountains behind me this was rather a non event. The stretch along the coast was extremely beautiful.



There was no need for a break really, but you rarely find yourself at a place as pleasant as Sidi Ifni, so I stayed for two nights. It is an eerily empty outpost of Spanish colonial architecture with a nice beach between the rocks with a constant noise of the mighty Atlantic waves crashing. Certainly consider coming here, if you head for Morocco!!



The route from now on is very predictable. I will enter the Sahara proper in the very near furture and then there is only one road ahead (as said earlier, the N1). If my my bike and I stay healthy and strong and if the trade winds are kind it should take me less than a week for the next 1200 km to the border.


Over the Mid Atlas: Fes to Marrakesh

My map said it was 52 km from Fes to Ifrane. A fairly straight line, about 5 cm long, so there would be not too much meandering, I figured, and the gradient consequently be manageable. The Atlas had to be somewhere else. A fairly short distance for the day however I was curious about this town. If I was early, I could still go further. I left around mid morning after a leisurely breakfast in the cafe. ‘Is this very steep?’ I asked another guest pointing at the chosen road on the map and he answered, ‘Hm, rather up and down’.


I stopped after 30 km in the middle of nowhere when I almost puked. I was dizzy. I decided this break would take as long as necessary and I would take it slowly thereafter. How I would do that wasn’t clear to me, since I was going at the lowest speed possible to maintain a straight line already. Now and then I had noticed my scenic surroundings but for most of the time I was just angry and exhausted. My legs burned. I continued uphill, reached a town. I quickly scanned what was on offer at the shop and opted for chocolate biscuits and a milky drink with strawberry taste assuming those would flood my system with sugar reasonably quickly. Then I continued, kilometre after kilometre at walking speed. Aren’t we fabulous beings? Turning chocolate biscuits into forward motion…


The road flattened out a bit, relatively speaking, for the last 10 km. The sun was low and it got chilly, then properly cold. Normally I would just push it a bit harder to keep warm, but I was beyond that, I was simply too weak to keep warm.


Ifrane is a funny town, but on arrival this mattered little. It was difficult to focus on anything other than warmth, food and rest. Fortunately, in my miserable, and short fused state I quickly found a hotel with a proper heating and an endless stream of hot water. After dinner, when my basic needs were met, I contemplated that passed day. This had been essentially 50 km straight uphill. My GPS receiver told me I was at about 1600 m above sea level, and the map indicated about 400 m for Fes. I had certainly never done a 1200 m difference in altitude climb on a bicycle before, let alone a loaded one.


So far on this trip I have been smart enough, or lucky enough (the two are not always easy to distinguish) to not run into trouble. However that day there was a lesson learned, and if you head off to cycle the Atlas in December, here is a piece of rock solid, road tested advise: Don’t send your gloves home from Genoa!


As I mentioned before, Ifrane is a funny town. It was purpose built by the French to resemble an alpine resort town. It is tidy, modern, and orderly with red roofed houses, flower beds, parks complete with an artificial lake all kept impeccably tidy. There is a skiing area nearby too. It really doesn’t look like north Africa at all, and to me felt a bit homely.



I left the next day for a short downhill ride through the cedar forrest to Azrou. The town has nice views but is otherwise unremarkable. Nevertheless I stayed for two nights, glued to the bowl.



An absolutely beautiful stretch followed to Khenifra, still an up and down ride however noticeably more down than up. Albeit it was always well below freezing over night by day the weather was about perfect for cycling and now and then some lycra laden guys on road bikes whizzed by. I certainly wasn’t the only cyclist around.




Not long after Khenifra the road flattened considerably and for the first time in a month I had made a daily progress of more than 120 km. Overall it had taken me six days for the stretch from Fes to Marrakesh. I could have had this faster however I stuck to a fairly luxury way of travel. Over night temperatures dropped to well below freezing, and there was always a layer of hoar frost in the mornings so I went from one town with accommodation to the next.


Looking is free, Make me happy and come into my shop for a minute… It doesn’t take long after entering the Medina in Marrakesh until shopkeepers or touts distract the attention of a blue eyed foreigner. I spent three days exploring the colourful souks and the cabinet of curiosity of characters trying to befriend the western traveller. I opted for a Riad, a town house to stay, what is a little expensive but a very nice experience. Town houses have a courtyard, and most or all of the windows, balconies and decoration is to the inside. This is where one can see all the tiled walls and mosaics, while from the streets and alleyways the residential areas in the Medinas are rather featureless.


It is an interesting city however I have to admit the hassle isn’t my cup of tea and I am looking forward to jump back in the saddle and head for the coast. My original plan was to cross the High Atlas. However after the cold nights in the Mid Atlas I decided otherwise. It is all snowy and I am not equipped for this type of weather. Technically of course I have to cross it in one way or another however I will continue westwards first and cross over at a low elevation.



The Road to Fes and Stuck in the Capital

I wanted to post this earlier since for a few days I had all the idle time I could ever wish for as well as an excellent internet connection. However on my trip to Rabat I forgot to bring that cable to connect the camera, so it would have been without photos, and I decided it would have to wait.


I did not stay in Chefchauen for more than a night. Perhaps I should have. It is a pretty little town well worth exploring. However there were more mountains for me ahead on the way to Fez and I was anxious to keep going. The roads remained steep and my daily progress anywhere between 60 and 80 km. The fields around me were barren and brown awaiting the winter. Only the olive harvest looked to be in full steam and sometimes when I was overtaken by a large truck loaded with tons of olives I wondered what mankind would do with such masses.


It took me three days to Fez. The first day was further along the main road, however the traffic became lighter. Then I turned on to a secondary road which for the most part saw very little traffic. Given the recent elections I ran into campaigners now and then. Some of them had great fun putting their fliers up on my bike, before, of course removing those of their competitors. I found it funny as well, however I made sure those fliers were gone before I reached the next town. What did I know what a party was about? And then, imagine a Moroccan guy cycling Europe with a bike full of propaganda of, say, one of the xenophobic parties and having no clue about it…




On the way to Ouazzane I encountered a teenage boy on a road bike. He followed me for some time, then, caught up and cycled next to me for some time, apparently not the least bit bothered by the motorists. Then he started to race me on the uphills, won each single time and waited for me on the downhills. Unfortunately our talking didn’t go anywhere since we could not even find a few words in a mutual language, but he smiled a lot and waved me off when after about 30 km our ways parted at an intersection outside of town.


At an unsigned intersection a man directed me onto a gravel road claiming this was a shortcut. It quickly became very bad and after about a kilometre I stopped to ask about this road once more since it was way too difficult to cycle and I wasn’t sure whether I would prefer to turn around and go the long way. A campaigner for the election who spoke quite good English assured me that the road would improve after another kilometre, then took me to a nearby farm where I was fed with bread and olive oil, followed by the obligatory mint tea. During my meal in the sun I watched the oil pressed out of the olives by a large donkey driven press.


My first expected night of wild camping did not turn out. About an hour before sunset I started looking out for a good spot but there was none. Maybe a seasoned camper would have seen one, but for me the whole area looked very visible from the road and it was nothing but muddy fields. I asked a farmer whether he would let me pitch up the tent on his land behind a house, which looked dry and invisible enough. I wasn’t sure whether he declined or just didn’t understand what I wanted but I moved on anyway. As it got darker I saw what looked like a fairly big town in the distance so I hoped I would find accommodation there. As it turned out there was none. A young man invited me to stay at his house however I would have to share with two little kids, which I declined, rather for the kids than for me. He took me to the gendarmerie. They let me pitch up the tent next to a rather busy road just behind the house in view of the guard. One of the gendarms later brought me a desperately needed blanket and some food. One of the neighbours dogs wasn’t happy with my presence though and albeit it stayed on the property there was barking until late in the night.


A rough night is good for an early start. I rolled into Fes already in the afternoon after another day of challenging uphills and exhilarating downhill stretches. I left my bike with a guy running a secure parking and headed for Rabat the next morning.


This was when I started to screw things up a bit. I wanted to be at the Mauritanian embassy first thing on Monday morning so I planned to spend the night before in the capital. Only when I got on the train it appeared to me that I had thought it was Sunday when it was only Saturday. Dammit. I regarded this side tripe as a necessity rather than pleasure so I was not particularly keen on staying for longer than necessary.


However, as so often, you get a lot more than you expect and I liked Rabat instantly. After my arrival I bought a takeaway sandwich and some biscuits for an early dinner and was searching for a nice place to sit down and eat when I found a promenade along the river. It had a nice view onto the Kasba and was busy with the likes of courting couples, dads flying kites with their kids, and teenagers performing stunts on rollerskates. There was certainly a bit of this Sunday afternoon in Hyde park vibe to it. And given it is right on the coast the warm evening was certainly a bonus.


Sightseeing on Sunday didn’t disappoint either. I guess, for a big city in Morocco, Casablanca is the one to head for, but I found it not only beautiful. It certainly has that big city feeling about it as well, when you can just blend in as you are without causing any attention.




I was at the Mauritanian Embassy at 9.00 hours sharp only to learn that it was closed for Fete Nationale. So I moved on to the Austrian embassy where I filled out the registration form. Then I spent most of the afternoon in the cafes. I like the cafes in Morocco. All of them have a terrace and I can sit there for hours sipping coffee or mint tea and watch the world go by. And quite a few have WiFi as well. Wherever I went for a second or third time I was known by the waiters and what appeared to be regular guests. Tuesday morning I arrived at the embassy a bit earlier and secured a good place in the queue, which in no time expanded to about 100 people or more, most of them Europeans. At least, I wouldn’t be the only overlander I thought. The visa department was really a hole in the wall place where you first pick up the form, fill it out while standing in the queue, then be questioned through the glass front by the only official. Finally you are given a number to present when picking it up the next afternoon. Easy. There was enough time left for another trip to my embassy to drop the copies of all my documents. Further more I had a meeting with the consul and the police attache to talk about concerns on the road ahead.


I came back to Fes on Thursday afternoon. Friday morning I had a few things to sort out still, and spent the large rest of the day sightseeing. Fes is one of the imperial cities. The royal palace was probably the most impressive sight for me, I was certainly taken by all the gold and the mosaics. The Medina is large and full of beautiful old buildings. Many of them however are in bad repair. Like in other places there is a lot of effort to rebuild this part of town, and construction work all over the place. Perhaps in a few years this place will be all shiny and refurbished. I learned it is the crafts city where many of the things sold in the souks of Marrakech are produced. Particularly the tannery is popular with tourists. Here one can watch the whole process from the hides to the handbags, which from the looks of it hasn’t changed a lot since medieval times. I certainly have not seen everything I should have but after almost a week without cycling I was anxious to get back in the saddle.




I am typing this already in the Atlas, in a funny town named Ifrane, with cramps in my legs and shivering when I even think about outside. There will be more about this in the next post.