BMW back Sahara riders
Milward Memorial Motorcycle Ride To Africa Supports Healthcare Delivery Charities
MAG members Craig Carey-Clinch and Dave French are undertaking an ambitious charitable motorcycle ride to West Africa beginning in November. The ride, in memory of motorcycling humanitarian Simon Milward, aims to raise awareness of the charities Riders for Health (RfH) and Motorcycle Outreach (MoR).
Simon Milward died in Mali, West Africa in March 2005. He was on the final stages of a round the world motorcycle ride in support of projects using motorcycles for the delivery of primary healthcare services in remote areas of developing countries. Simon worked closely with Riders for Health and co-founded a project on the Indonesian island of Flores called Health for All. The project delivers primary healthcare to over 55,000 people.
The two riders will undertake the memorial run, which will visit the RfH centre in The Gambia, West Africa. Both are experienced long-distance motorcyclists who will be making their second motorcycle trip to Africa.
The run has already attracted strong support from sections of the motorcycle community and is supported by BMW, who have provided two motorcycles for the journey – the exceptional F650 GS Dakars for the journey, plus two Rallye2 suits.
In addition, Metal Mule, manufacturers of quality hard luggage systems for adventure motorcycling have kindly offered full sets of hard luggage for both motorcycles. The Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) have also offered major sponsorship support, along with Intaride Communications and Scottoiler.
The riders say – ‘This journey is a challenging proposition, but is not about stretching the boundaries of motorcycling, or human endurance. It is a journey which anyone of average fitness could do on a modern motorcycle after essential preparation for a long trip to sub-Saharan Africa.
The riders will seek to demystify long distance independent overlanding, with the aim of encouraging long distance touring motorcycling as an enjoyable and sometimes challenging alternative biking activity for the average motorcyclist.
The riders aim to leave soon after the International Motorcycle Show ends on November 6th and intend to return to London on or around the 20th December.
Stand space has been purchased at the NEC International Motorcycle Show to promote the ride and the Flores project.
Dave is well travelled by motorcycle in Europe, SE Asia, the United States and Japan. He has travelled in 52 countries, over half of these by motorcycle. He is from West Cork, Ireland and currently based in Poland. He is a long-serving member of the Federation of European Motorcyclists Association (FEMA) Committee through his life Presidency of the Irish Motorcyclists Action Group (MAGI), which he founded. He has also worked with the MCI in the UK on more than one occasion.
He is an internationalist who in addition to working with Simon Milward and Craig Carey-Clinch over many years has participated in a range of motorcycling legislative activities in different European countries and the US.
Craig has travelled extensively in Europe and the United States by motorcycle. He is well known in the motorcycle world through his work as public affairs director of the UK Motor Cycle Industry Association (MCI). Over a long period in motorcycling, he has worked with industry and riders groups in a number of European countries and US States, has worked in motorcycle journalism and in other motorcycling sectors. He has been with the MCI since 1998 directing political lobbying and associated public relations.
For further information about Simon Milward and his Millennium Motorcycle www.millennium-ride.com
<The Road Issue 2 article to be inserted here>
The Road Issue 3
Sand in my Sandwiches
Sand in my sandwiches
The Brigadier and Dave French who is Irish crossed the Sahara on a couple of BMW 650 singles. The editor was so jealous he flew out to equatorial Africa just to take the Micky out of them.
Motorcycles kindly supplied and prepared by Vines BMW of Guildford
“I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get out here” I told the sweaty grinning duo, “I hope you appreciate it.”
The Brigadier leaned back in the colonial pool-side chair at the Bungalow Beach Hotel and puffed on a roll up.
“We crossed the Sahara” he trumpeted, blowing smoke contemptuously into my face. Dave French who is Irish grinned broadly, “indeed, indeed” he mused. This wasn’t going to be easy, I’d so much wanted to make the trip myself as the time for departure drew near but the logistics of visas, Carnet de Passage and the complications of handing over the late production stages of THE ROAD to someone else, not to mention a considerable apprehension earlier, all contrived to deter me. Not wishing to leave them braving the perils of Africa entirely alone however, I decided to accompany them on the tricky early part of the journey, just far enough to see them well on their way and growing in confidence to the point where they felt confident enough to take on the awesome Sahara. So it was that with a wallet full of credit cards and inoculation certificates I set out from the Brigadier’s South London HQ and shunned all temptation to turn back for the safety of home until we reached Guildford.
The next time I saw the boys they were a little grimier but smirking like teenagers who’d scored at the school dance. Dave French who is Irish was, as always, ridiculously overdressed in heavy motorcycle boots and the trousers of his BMW Rallye 2 suit that he declined to take off even in the 90 degree heat of the outdoor bar at the Bungalow Beach Hotel.
“Are you not hot in those trousers?” I asked him.
“No no Oi’m fine, just fine”, grinned Dave. The man aint natural !
“We crossed the Sahara” said the Brigadier a second time, looking even more smug.
“OK” I said, taking out a notebook and pen.
“Tell me all about it.”
“Sand, rock, road, more sand” said Dave.
“Anything to add?” I asked.
“No that’s about it” he concluded laconically, leaning back in his chair and squinting at the sky. “Oh and we saw the sea. Lots of times,” he added, looking as though he’d just discovered a deep vein of great literary thought.
“Not cut out for journalism really were you,” I commented with a hint of sarcasm.
“But we did cross the Sahara” he shot back with another grin.
We retired to the rooftop veranda bar of the ‘Destiny’s’ restaurant on equatorial Africa’s Gambian coast where we stretched out for a sundowner beer as the palm trees bowed gently in a warm Sou’ Westerly and the horizon turned crimson beyond the surf. The Brigadier decided to give me the low-down on the trip as I made notes while glancing frequently at Dave French for signs of cynicism. The Spanish section of the trip out was wet and freezing, two days of rain and cold with freezing fog. Not ’til they emerged from the mountains in the south of the country and headed for Malaga did the sun show itself and the temperature begin to rise.
The fast ferry reminds the traveller just how close Africa is to the Southern tip of Europe. About five miles separate the continents and hey presto you are in another world.
“So we arrived in Ceuta, where we stayed the night before heading into Morocco.”
“Hang on, I thought you were in Morocco?”
“Ceuta is Spanish Morocco, it’s under Spanish jurisdiction and therefore still sort of Europe.”
“Sorry I’m not having that, you sailed out of Algeciras in Spain heading South, you’re in Africa, right carry on.”
The Brigadier buried his face in cupped hands as he endeavoured to light a dead roll up against competition from a strengthening Atlantic sea breeze.
“We tried the Hotel Africa but the management had changed since we were there in 2000 and the place felt more than a little bit dodgy, so we moved on.”
“Hang on are you going to list all the hotels you didn’t stay at?”
“Look you wanted a story, now just shut your face and make notes.”
“We stayed at the Hotel Tripp – one of those places which is full of business box rooms.”
“I take it the room was small?”
“Not so much small as a clone of every other business hotel that you see in Europe.”
“Do you have the dimensions?”
“No I don’t have the bloody dimensions, does it matter?”
“I just thought you were going to give me all the details, if we’re going to name hotels you didn’t stay at we might as well measure the ones where you did.”
“Nine foot six by eight foot seven OK!”
I pondered the geometry for a moment.
“Did you two share a bed?”
“We did not!” interjected Dave French who is genetically Irish and emphatically unambiguous.”
“Mr Carey-Clinch I think you should tell us about your dinner.”
“Pork chop, half raw, I had to send it back.”
“You ordered pork in a hot Arab country?” Dave French who is Irish nodded agreement with my implicit assessment of this stupidity as the barman chased an airborne beer mat across the wind swept patio. The Brigadier sighed
“Ceuta is not hot and it’s not Arab – it’s Spanish. Don’t you ever take any notice? Anyhow, the next day we went into Morocco — into Africa proper. First there are the formalities and this border is famous for hustlers, touts and fake ‘officials’, waiting to pounce on the unwary.” Unfortunately for our intrepid duo, the bikes, both BMW Dakar 650s, were registered to the BMW company, not the riders.
“Ooh this is a problem, this is a major problem” groaned the customs officer, wagging his head sadly in a pantomime of affected concern. The words “this is a problem” are of course Moroccan for “hurrah all my Christmases have come at once, now open your wallet effendi.”
“We had to pay 80 Euro a bike” conceded the Brigadier in the manner of someone who is convinced there was no alternative. Dave French who is Irish choked on his ‘Jul Brew’ beer.
“Had to, my arse” he expostulated, “if Oi had my way . . . ”
“Well anyway we got into the country in just over half an hour” interrupted the Brigadier, “we could have been there all day arguing the toss and still ended up paying – they had us by the balls with that one” he continued, in the dismissive manner of someone who wishes to proceed.
“So, nice and hot now?”
“No, it was pissing with rain, we were in the Rif Mountains heading south and it just rained and rained.” The Brigadier cleared his throat to continue . . . “How many cigarettes had you smoked by this time?” I interjected.
“Five hundred and forty two,” he said tartly. “The roads were treacherously slippery with diesel, so we took a short cut on a road we’d discovered in 2000 in the direction of the Motorway junction at Larache. This was an excellent riding road, lots of slow twisties which bought out the best in the bikes. The single cylinder BMW GS 650 Dakars are not best suited to motorway mile crunching but on roads like this they excel.
“Once on the motorway We settled down for a good ride all the way to Rabat, keeping to about 70mph.”
“Weren’t you afraid a camel might step out?”
“Camels aren’t often seen in this part of the country.”
“No camels!? OK stop right there, are you absolutely sure you were in Morocco?” I looked to Dave.
“To be sure to be sure, we were” he said in his broad Celtic brogue, because you see, Dave French is Irish. By now the wind was getting ridiculous and Banjul’s electricity supply had failed as it failed every night at this time. I went off to pay the bill and headed downstairs after the others, losing my footing in the dark and falling backwards on to a merciless marble step that winded me and bruised my ribs. Down at sea level I followed the smell of Golden Virginia toward a small glow in the darkened bar which identified a trio of shapes comprising the Brigadier, Mrs Peel, who had recently married him and Dave French who hadn’t, though they shared a very small room earlier in the adventure if you remember.
“I’ve just had a nasty fall, I think I may have broken a rib” I announced.
“We’ll take the road via the Barra ferry towards Kaolack” said the Brigadier to Mrs Peel without glancing at me.
“You don’t give a damn about my ribs, do you ?” I asked, somewhat disturbed by this callous indifference.
“I’m mortified by your misfortune” replied the Brigadier, sceptically, reaching for his lighter as a table cloth inflated and flipped over his arm, “but we’ve got to sort the route out for tomorrow’s Riders for Health field trip.”
“Great,” I said “you sort your route out, don’t mind me.”
As the ocean front hotel was beginning to resemble the foredeck of a destroyer in a Force Eight we retired inland to the Harmartan Restaurant which boasted independent lighting and a gently crooning reggae-esque trio beating out a surreal version of ‘When the Saints come Marching In.’
“Now then, where were we?”
“Morocco, Rabat. Dave had an excellent Chicken Tagine and I had a wonderful French onion soup served by a very pretty waitress.”
“Stop! where’s the picture of the waitress ?”
“There isn’t one.”
“Because we’re not all as sad as you. Now then, the bread was wonderful, you want good bread, come to North West Africa. “We made a bit of a tactical error the next day.”
“We?” interjected Dave, rising from his grilled Barracuda in herb butter.
“Brigadier’s cock up”. conceded Craig magnanimously. “We should have headed down the coast but we went for Marrakesh which involved a long ride across a plain before reaching the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The motorway marked on the map was non existent and we spent a lot of time dodging knackered lorries. “Riding toward Agadir we found ourselves on the road to Essaouira which provided a taste of things to come. The area was just devoid of anything living, there was just all this nothingness and then it got dark.
“We hadn’t planned to ride after dark at all but it kept happening on this trip. It’s not a great idea, you need to see the road; there can be animals on it or unlit vehicles, you don’t want to be on the road after dark in this part of the world. “Anyway time was pressing and we wanted to get as far as Essaouira, so in the gathering gloom we tucked in behind a tour bus that was doing between 60 and 70mph on the bending road, using the logic that it would probably clear any obstacles in our way. Some time later we reached our destination and being tired, stopped at the first hotel we saw…”
“As opposed to one Oi’d been to before just down the road a bit that would have cost half as much.” said Dave French who is Irish and is used to Polish prices as he lives in Poland.
“Well it was quite a place anyway,” continued the Brigadier, “a big traditional kind of hotel based on the Alhambra with Moorish vaulted columns and Arabic carvings.”
“Did you have sheep’s eyes for dinner?”
“No, no sheep’s eyes.”
“Did you have any sheep’s eyes at any time on this trip?”
“What about Dave, did he have any?”
“Not unless he quietly chomped some down and didn’t tell me about it.”
“Oi certainly did not” added Dave French who is neither French nor it would seem a lover of sheep’s eyes.
“So it was a bit of a sheep-eye free trip really then?”
“You could call it that” said the Brigadier a little wearily.
“What did you have then, burger and chips?” “No we didn’t, I can’t remember – something, we ate something.”
“Tell me about Essaouira.”
“We spent the morning there, they’ve got a good fish market and we saw fish being unloaded from small boats — Sardines galore. Local boats were being built on the quayside using very traditional methods. It was just like taking a trip into the past. We also took a walk through the Medina which was very atmospheric and also a step back in time, loads of artisans, wood carvers galore but no hassling from touts which was great.”
“Did you smoke a hubbly bubbly?”
“No, just Golden Virginia but we did have some coffee.”
“Made by Bedouins in Jalabahs?”
“Strangely no, it was made by a Hindu couple using an Italian coffee machine.” The Brigadier looked at me with a provocative half smile on his face intended to convey a sense of smug superiority before continuing. I said nothing.
“We did 170kms on bendy mountain roads heading toward Agadir. A relaxed ride compared to the day before and full of great photo opportunities. This was the first time the road went alongside the Atlanticc coast which was to become so familiar. Local kids kept hassling us for ‘cadeau’ whenever we stopped for a break, or to take a closer look at the Argan trees. One of them tried to nick Dave’s bottled water.”
“I thought that was your trick?”
“That’s just an ugly rumour.”
“Hmm I think I have a picture of Dave lying parched in the desert on a previous trip with you riding off into the distance with all his water.”
“Taken by Achmed the fortuitously located, I presume?”
“The very same, I shall see if I can find it, our members should know the ugly truth. Did anything else happen today?”
“Dave rode off into the sand dunes.”
“To stop you nicking his water?”
“No he just fancied it, he’s like that.”
“Did you ever get to Agadir?”
“We did, and took a day off. We walked over to the port to look at the huge fishing fleet – the largest sardine fleet in Morocco I believe. I chatted to some dockworkers who were cooking sardines on traditional brochettes and went on board one of the larger boats to take some pics. Then we took a ‘petit-taxi’ to the old Kasbah high above the town.
“The old Kasbah and town of Agadir was destroyed in a huge earthquake in 1961. About 18,000 people were killed, with many more dying of disease afterwards. The destruction was so total that they treated the whole site as a mass grave and buried the lot under tons of stones. Only the Kasbah walls survive and these are now lit at night. Agadir was rebuilt as a new town and tourist resort a short way down on the coast.
“After Agadir we started heading into real desert and after some wonderful mountain riding through the Anti Atlas, we headed out into increasingly arid terrain. We were now on the Sahara Atlantic Route proper – almost no junctions or deviations for over 1,000 miles – a single strip of tarmac joining North Africa and Europe with West Africa – the only complete road across the Sahara. There we came across the kissing camels at Tan-Tan and stopped to take a picture. These are huge statues of camels in concrete which mark the symbolic start of the Sahara. Shortly before this, we met some of the Amsterdam to Banjul Challenge drivers. The challenge involves driving old cars across Europe and through the Sahara to Banjul in the Gambia – our own destination where the participants auction their vehicles to raise money for Gambian charities. We were just standing around, taking a fag and photo break, when there was a screech of tyres and these Dutch guys in a battered Renault covered in stickers and graffiti pulled up for a chat. We kept running into Challenge teams all the way to Gambia. They were great folk, who made the desert seem a less empty place.
“All in all, there were over 30 cars, with more to follow in the coming weeks. The challenge is also done from the UK, with the Plymouth/Banjul Challenge taking place each year. I think the UK challenge was the original one.
“The land flattened out after Tan-Tan Plage, it was just utterly featureless and empty, riding with the Atlantic appearing sometimes on our right and the sun in our eyes to the South. The sun got really tiring, always somewhere ahead, always in our eyes, absolutely no respite. It would start on one side of our track early in the morning and work through an arc to the other by sunset, where the burning orb was all that you could see at the end of the road ahead.”
“So this was a bit grim ?”
“A bit, but in contrast it was very peaceful when we stopped the engines, the quiet was something unusual, only deserts are this quiet. The peace steals over you and suddenly the desert is a wonderful place to be and you appreciate that what appears featureless when you are riding is in fact a vastly contrasting land of colours and textures, with small plants and wildlife. We had planned to stop briefly at Tarfaya to look at the memorial for the French aviation pioneer Antoine de St Exupery who’d crashed there, but it was just about dark and we still had 90km to do before reaching our destination for the day — Laayoune, across the border in the Western Sahara.
“Reaching Laayoune, we booked into a place which I will call Hotel Stench. The plumbing didn’t work properly so water kept backing up in the pipes and the whole place stank of excrement by the following morning. But if one ignored the smell, it was comfortable and cheap otherwise. We took dinner and beer in a different hotel, a Parador, which had a nice courtyard among palm trees and fountains. Nice after a day of desert riding. “Laayoune is the capital of Western Sahara, or Sahara Occidental. The country is disputed territory between Morocco and the Polisario, an independence group who hold vast territory in the east of the country and across the border with Algeria. Morocco took over the country and marched thousands of civilians (voters) in during the so called ‘Green March’ many years ago and has since invested billions in the country’s infrastructure. This is aimed at encouraging civil support for Moroccan rule in a UN-brokered referendum on the future of the country which will be held at some point in the future.
“Until a few years ago threats of Polisario attacks meant that the Atlantic route could only be travelled as part of an army convoy, but a lasting truce now makes this unnecessary. The country remains flooded with troops and UN ‘Observers’ who seem to do little but hang around in restaurants in Laayoune and Dakhla, or drive around in Landcruisers ‘observing’. The result is a totally tax free haven of new towns and villages, solid modern infrastructure and a very odd feel. Completely safe though – even the most ardent independence supporter realises the stupidity of attacking overland tourists.
“The next day we headed towards Dakhla, covering 400kms of vast empty desert. The landscape constantly changes though, with plains of dunes contrasting with vast mesas, plunging cliffs and deep chasms in the desert floor. The ocean is never far away and the occasional shipwreck adds colour to the beautiful coastline and vast miles of sandy beaches.
“Despite the emptiness, we never seemed to be quite alone. The road was fairly busy with commercial traffic and we saw many beaten up old trucks transporting fish from Dakhla to the markets in the north. Many people lived on the cliffs, eking out a precarious existence from fishing. Sometimes we’d be stopped on the side of the road taking in the view, when some character would come walking or cycling by. Very strange given the vast distance between any kind of habitation. In over 500 miles we saw only a handful of villages and just two large towns.
“Police and army checkpoints were frequent. Bored officials would take down passport contents in minute detail in old exercise books and the atmosphere was mostly relaxed, except in one place where an agitated official led us to wonder if we were about to run into problems. Feigning ignorance and smiling a lot usually helps though.
“The Lonely Planet described Dakhla as the last place on earth. Riding across a wide empty landscape of dunes along the narrow peninsular into the town certainly reinforces an image of the end of the world, but the town is clean, modern and very welcoming and full of football mad teenagers.
“We stayed at the Hotel Doumes and ate brochettes in a nice little place near the port. Afterwards we repaired to the posh Hotel Regency Sahara in search of beer, which is mostly only served in big hotels in Morocco and Western Sahara, the Muslim religion frowning on activities such as drinking.
“Dakhla boasts the largest fishing fleet in Moroccan territory and it was here that we met an Irish fisherman.”
“You met an Irish fisherman?”
“We met an Irish fisherman.”
“Did you know him?” I asked Dave.
“Oddly enough Oi did not.” he replied with what sounded like genuine surprise. The Brigadier continued.
“Riding South the next day the scenery became spectacular. Mesas galore, rolling sand dunes, rocky escarpments, no towns, nothing – just empty constantly changing desert landscape and no traffic. This was because the road only had one destination. Before leaving town we filled the extra fuel cans, as we had learned that fuel supplies were unreliable from here to Nouadhibou in Mauritania. This was our first taste of riding with that extra weight high up on the pillion seats, but the GS’s handled the cans as though they didn’t exist.
“At mid day we stopped for an hour at a lovely place where the road came almost to the edge of the ocean. A peaceful beach with golden sand and small rocks where tiny birds picked about for the odd bit of shell fish. Dave went swimming in the sea. An indulgence at odds with the image of arduous desert travel.
“Talking of sea shells, it’s worth mentioning that much of the Sahara lay on the bed of the sea in millenniums past. A reminder of this is the huge number of what are effectively fossil shells which litter the desert just about everywhere. Wherever we stopped the ground was covered in the things, also billions of tiny snail shells. Ancient and brittle. You see the same thing in West Africa, the ground is simply full of prehistoric shells. So many indeed, that they find their way into hardcore for roads and are mixed with tar, instead of stones, to make the tarmac which paves many of the roads in the region.
“We filled up with fuel for the final time at a petrol station affectionately known as G1 due to the waypoint in my BMW Navigator II GPS. This place lay in the middle of absolutely nowhere and boasted a small café and stinking toilets. Reports that this station didn’t always have fuel were thankfully unfounded and our jerry-cans remained full. “Eventually we reached the border of Western Sahara at Fort Guerguarat on the Mauritanian border. This was also where the road ran out, with only a poor looking piste running ahead into the distance through the minefield beyond the border. There were several European tourists with a variety of beaten up old vans including a pair of cyclists – how do they do it ? These characters were mainly French and German. After formalities were completed, we followed some German vans through the minefield which runs for hundreds of miles along the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania, a legacy of an old dispute between the two countries. This was a truly appalling 2-3 km stretch of piste, full of sand traps and jagged rocks, but perfectly rideable with care and with little real danger of getting stuck – or blown up as long as you stick to the defined track. Curiously there were people living in the minefield, scratching a living selling parts from wrecked cars and buying and selling items from people passing through – a curious existence, living neither in one country or another.”
“It was a noice spot roit enough,” added Dave French who is Irish. We all looked at him in silence.
“Well it was, it just was a very noice spot.” I steered a wood lice off my notebook and recorded the fact. “Minefields make nice homes.”
“The Mauritanian border was very clean, and efficient despite the obvious drop in living standards compared to the modern concrete border facilities a few kilometres back and no-one sought bribes. The army, police and customs people received us in wooden huts and made neat entries of our details in exercise books using rulers. These characters lived at their posts and each hut contained bedding, cooking gear and personal items, in addition to the small desk which was their office. The army hut also sported a highly polished AK47 propped in the corner. Everything was very relaxed and the police invited us to sit on their beds and chat, while they laboriously filled out our passport details. Formalities concluded, including the payment of a 10 Euro fee to the police and 10 Euro for the Mauritanian Carnet de Passage and we were on a brand new road heading towards Nouadhibou, 40k away.
“Nearly all the cars we saw in Mauritania were wrecks, only vaguely resembling the Renault 5s, 12s and Mercedes vehicles that they once were. Shot suspension, battered panels, windows missing, belching smoke. Most of them driving around at night with no lights (often the light fittings simply weren’t there any more) which posed another hazard.
“It was pitch black as we arrived in Nouadhibou, to be greeted by thronging crowds of people on the streets, with unlit cars slowly weaving in and out of the streets and pavements, following no recognisable pattern of driving standard – a very laissez-faire mix of pedestrians and people with everyone having right of way. Dire poverty was immediately obvious.
“Any kind of street lighting was rare and dim. and seeing nowhere to stay and still dealing with the culture shock of a new and very different country – at night we were feeling desperate when the most useful tout of the trip appeared in a battered Renault as if by order and led us to the Hotel Oasian, one of the places we had earmarked from the Lonely Planet. No luck though — it was full of UN types having a conference on immigration. Our friendly tout guided us instead to the Hotel Sahel on one of the few streets with any kind of lighting. Just talking to the calm man on the reception desk and finding we had somewhere good to stay, we felt all the cares of the day just washing away. That night we dined in style on huge fish, washed down with Flag beer, at the very clean Canaria Restaurant.
“Daylight revealed a clean but dusty and seemingly half built small city, which although poor, had a businesslike air about it. Lots of street trade, people busy with the daily grind of eking out an existence. Loads of scrapheap cars engaged in all kinds of trade around the town, or being nursed back to life for yet another final wheezing few weeks of smoke belching travel. One had the impression that even the most sorry looking wreck would still be slowly trundling the streets of Nouadhibou long after cars that were pouring off the production lines of Europe and Japan that very day had met their demise on Europe’s oh so modern and progressive road network.
“After buying some vehicle insurance, which later turned out to be valid for the entire French speaking area of West Africa, we had a nervous hour when we found that petrol was a rare commodity indeed. We tried almost every fuel station in town before finally tracking down some leaded ‘Essence Super’ at a small garage with a huge queue. Bye bye catalytic converters!
“And so out of town to join the long anticipated new road to Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, 480 kilometres away. The new road is not yet marked on any map and with varying reports about it, the whole route had gained mythical status in our minds. Would it be a breeze, or did the thing even exist? We had full tanks and full jerry cans, so fuel wasn’t an issue, but would it be an easy day’s ride, or two days hard slog through the sand?
“Then we met the famous ore train, whose track runs alongside the road for a time. This was something else, the longest train in the world which carts ore between Choum in the east of the country to the port at Nouadhibou. It’s an incredible sight, about 150 wagons hauled by three huge engines, some who have seen it regard it as one of the modern wonders of the world. A sluggish giant of a vehicle whose cargo of ore was topped with miscellaneous bodies waving as they trundled dustily by, like something from the early days of trains in Westerns.”
“A bit like Blazing Saddles eh?”
“A bit…”, conceded the Brigadier hesitantly.
“Did you spot any Irishman on the waggons Dave French ?”
“None that Oi knew” replied Dave with an alacrity that suggested he’d anticipated the question. The Brigadier took advantage of the break to roll another ciggie which he fired up before continuing.
“This was the first truly hot day, which I dealt with by swallowing rehydration salts and sugars in my water. One of the dangers of drinking large volumes of water is that the body’s salts, that it needs to sustain electrolyte levels, get washed out and you need to replenish them. When good water tastes disgusting you know something is going wrong.
“You’ve had this trouble before, haven’t you?”
“I have, it’s awful.”
“Do you think it’s due to the fact that you’re genetically inferior?” The Brigadier bristled briefly before a nauseating smile spread over his face.
“I’ve crossed the Sahara,” he crowed.
Dave French grinned.
“Go on” I said.
“As it turned out, the new road was one of the best we’ve ever seen. It put many of our own European roads to shame – miles and miles of perfect well marked blacktop. A bit boring as it turned out. This section of the Mauritanian Sahara is flat, featureless and just a whole lot of hot riding miles, with the odd tin hut and characters selling either diesel from drums, or food from tents or shacks masquerading as restaurants.
“It’s worth mentioning that there are no real fuel stations. One or two small places are under construction but they don’t have any fuel, or just some diesel. Dave reckons that there will be petrol at some of these places soon. He could be right, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The thing is that outside of the towns people don’t tend to use petrol vehicles — just about everything runs on diesel. The scarcity of petrol in a large town like Nouadhibou does not bode well for regular supplies of ‘Super’ in the desert. I would strongly advise anyone taking this route to make sure that if they run on petrol, they have enough fuel on board to make the entire crossing between Nouadhibou and Nouakchott – 480 kilometres.
“Later that day, about 200k from Nouakchott, we saw something awful which gave some food for thought. Just off to the side of the road lay a couple of decapitated camels still loaded up with riding gear. It seemed to me that something very bad had happened here, maybe some kind of inter-tribal ruck; the smell was terrible and we just kept on going.”
“You’d never make a war photographer would you.”
“I didn’t want a picture I wanted to forget about it. Things sometimes magnify themselves in your mind when you’re deep in the desert.” We pondered this for a second before the Brigadier continued.
“We rode through a massive rainstorm later in the day and saw some Bedouins on camels trying to protect themselves from the downpour.
Once again we found ourselves riding after dark for the last 100k to our destination. It was during this effort that we spotted a faint light up ahead moving back and forth in the gloom. Luckily we pulled up in time to see that it was a checkpoint guard waving a dim torch just ahead of an unlit steel barrier across the road. The cops here were quite jovial and, with the arrival of two French trucks, it almost seemed as though we were about to have a party by the side of the road. “From here we had a police escort for the last 10k into Nouakchott provided by a lone cop on a 175cc Honda . He led us to the Hotel Sabel on the beach where we ate deep fried fish and chips and watched mice scurry about the place.
“The surprising helpfulness and generosity of people that you meet when you travel is one of its attractions and more than makes up for the bad times. The owner, who spoke perfect English, handed me his mobile to call home – no charge, no worries, just total trust.”
“Did you nick his water?”
“No I didn’t, now just write down what I tell you.
“Next day we were away at first light towards Rosso and the crossing into Senegal. Nouakchott in the light of day is an impoverished place for a capital city. The beach area where we had stayed is known to be quite dodgy and is some way out of the main town. Between there and the main town the whole area is one huge stinking rubbish tip, with characters picking their way through piles of refuse looking for things to recycle. Much of it was burning, lending a Dante’s Inferno-esque feel to the place in the low early morning light.
“An hour out of town and we saw this lorry that had crashed when a front wheel had fallen off late at night. It had spilt its load of paint cans over the road, though these had already been carefully stacked up for collection. Anyway while we were stopped and I was soaking my clothes to keep cool – with my own water before you ask – a man came over to explain to Dave how you can extract seeds from spiky plants.
“And how do you extract seeds from spiky plants?”
“Oi’ll explain it to you later, so Oi will” said Dave French, the seed extraction expert. The Brigadier lit another rollie and continued.
“Everything felt different now, more black African than Arab. There was more colour, more exuberance and it felt less foreign, something which Dave put down to what he called the Brixton experience, an issue of familiarity. The desert slowly gave way to Sahel, lots of red sand and thin forests of low trees. The road steadily deteriorated, becoming more and more potholed, but still good enough to keep a steady 50mph. Then we came to the Rosso crossing.
“The border crossing between Mauritania and Senegal at Rosso is reputed to be the worst in Africa. There are formalities at Rosso-Mauritania followed by a short ferry crossing to Rosso-Senegal where more bureaucracy has to be faced to get into Senegal. Stories abound of rip offs, people having to buy their passports back, huge delays, hustlers, theft, threats, extortion and other nightmares. “Our plan was to take the piste to Diama Dam and the more relaxed border crossing there.
Unfortunately, we missed the turn and ended up at the gates to the customs compound, immediately surrounded by a great throng of jabbering faces and people all demanding our attention, offering ‘assistance’, issuing instructions. It was like entering the gates of hell, people grabbing the bikes, guys in uniform yelling in our faces.
“We started to turn the bikes around to get the hell out of there, when a guy in police uniform yelled at us to stop. I ignored him and continued to turn as another thug shouted “you have to listen to him, he is the police” Dave looked the ‘cop’ up and down and said contemptuously;
“So if yer a real cop, where’s yer gun sonny?” The guy was one of the fake cops that we’d been warned about.
“Dave, let’s find the Diama piste” I called out. The thug said; “no, no, no — Diama piste no good, it closed!”.
“Fine” I replied, “We’re tryin’ it anyway” and roared off with the thug running after me shouting “Diama OK, Diama OK!” in a final desperate attempt to fool me into giving him cadeau.
“Dave followed tout-suite and thanks to the good offices of a genuine Army guy, we soon found ourselves on the sand and dirt road to Diama Dam – a relatively easy 100k of gentle mixed surface piste riding alongside a dyke which led through a beautiful national park full of birds and other wildlife adjacent to the River Senegal. Much of it was packed earth, but there were plenty of areas of sand which we had to take steadily due to only having road tyres. Some corrugated patches as well. The bikes took all this in their stride though.
“We enjoyed the piste so much that we kept stopping to take photographs and shoot film, so it was quite late in the day when we exited Mauritania and rode over the dam into Senegal. Here we had to pay to get through a barrier before we even got to the customs post – a completely corrupt road toll. Fatigue got the better of me and when the grinning idiot, whose job it was to take bucksheesh from travellers, said, in French, that the fee was 10 Euro, I heard it as 100 Euro. Dave went ballistic and refused to pay. Fortunately, this misunderstanding was soon sorted and, although we resented having to pay it, Mr Grin got his 10 Euro. Customs and police were more relaxed and there were no hustlers, though the process cost 50 Euro each, all of it in ‘official’ bribes. No escaping it though. The Customs officer was genuinely pleased that we had proper Carnets de Passage. Despite many warnings, people are still trying to cross into Senegal without this vital but expensive document. A morose looking German hippy with an old Mercedes van bore testament to this, he didn’t have the necessary bits of paper and was in for a long and expensive night as he tried to argue for the faint possibility of a three day Laissez-Passer. I didn’t give much for his chances. The advice on this is specific and very clear – No Carnet, no entry to Senegal – Beware travellers! (The RAC are the only organisation in the UK who issue them).
“Piste gave way to brand new road which was Just as well because it was pitch black by this time. Mosquitoes had also got into my clothes and bitten my arms to shreds. We were heading for a travellers gem – Zebrabar – a campsite run by a Swiss couple which caters almost entirely for overland travellers in vehicles. We’d heard that it was a great place to stay and pressed on past St Louis, despite having no directions apart from a few GPS waypoints.
“We left the main road and set off down a side road, following the waypoints, until our progress was obstructed by thorny branches across our path. ‘Hello’ we thought, ‘what’s this, some kind of ambush?’ Was the GPS playing up, what lay ahead? We were tired and this kind of uncertainty late at night is not good for morale. We rode cautiously between the branches peering into the gloom with ears on alert and then suddenly the world underwent one of those inversions that make overlanding so satisfying. In a minute we emerged from darkness and bewilderment and uncertainty into another world. Zebrabar.
“Lights shone, people sat at tables drinking beers and eating; it was surreal. Lying on the coast in the Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie among beautiful beaches and teeming wildlife, the place was a mini paradise reminiscent of the set of the movie, ‘The Beach.’ This was a real oasis of joy that operated on solar power, windmills and trust, illustrated by the bar which worked on a help yourself principle with a book to mark off beers in alongside your name. Really good kharma, bit hippyish, but simply great.
“We spent two nights at Zebrabar and didn’t want to leave, it was one of those places where you just feel comfortable and we didn’t want to move but we had to.”
“Was that because you’d pinched all their water?”
“No it bloody well wasn’t, I paid for everything.
“We took the time to visit nearby St Louis where we watched the world go by on a pavement cafe amidst the crumbling splendour of old French colonial architecture. A relaxed town which is well worth a visit – famous for jazz I understand.
“Back at the campsite, a very friendly and knowledgeable, but unfortunately ‘been everywhere and done it all’ German guy assured us that Banjul was an easy one day trot from here , oh yeah sure. So tearing ourselves away from this haven we headed south once again along Senegal’s respectable roads and interesting villages, a great contrast from the poverty and bleakness of Mauritania. Vibrant and colourful, friendly people and lots of things to see. Each village seemed to specialise in something different. One would be full of vegetable and melon sellers, another would have streets lined with mechanics’ workshops and so on.
“In addition to regular car and truck traffic, battered, brightly coloured Mercedes vans with Touba painted on the front, sometimes with no windows or doors, ran an ad hoc bus service between villages and towns.
“This was classic picture book Africa with thatched roofed mud huts and huge Baobab trees. Police checkpoints were regular and relaxed. We stopped for the heat of the day in a village which specialised in water melons and also doubled as a roadside truck stop. Here we ate bananas while sheltering from the blistering heat and watched girls operating a trade in bottled water.
“We noticed the waiting truck drivers checking the seals – if the locals where worried about the water being clean, then clearly we should too! I decided to use the bottle I bought to douse my clothes instead of drinking it, after noticing that the seal had been cleverly tampered with.
“It was here that one of the local youths came up to me with an injured and septic finger that I treated with TCP before binding it up. Blow me down if he didn’t then demand money as well – enough already! The police here took an interest in us and wanted to see paperwork including our insurance papers which we thought we didn’t have – we hadn’t yet realised that our Mauritanian insurance covered Senegal as well. We showed them our Green Cards which seemed satisfy them, but a look at our driving licences aroused suspicion in my case as I have numerous license categories including HGV. The suspicion was that this documentation must be phoney.
“They accepted it eventually and we made the last 100km or so to Kaolack in one hellish hot wind blast from the east. Feeling a bit woolly headed from this, we checked into a cockroach and mosquito infested hotel whose saving grace was wheezing air conditioning, and sloped off for a beer at the more expensive Hotel Paris.
“Kaolack, despite being a filthy refuse strewn town, boasts the second largest covered market in Africa and an exceptional restaurant in the shape of Le Brasero Chez Anouar, run by a locally born Frenchman, a refugee from the era of French administration who describes himself as a white negro. Excellent lamb kebabs and Gazelle beer rounded off the day nicely as huge ceiling fans stirred the hot night air – all very colonial.
“The last 100kms to Banjul in the Gambia took most of the day. The Senegalese customs were straightforward on exit from this excellent country, but though it was good to be speaking English again, the Gambian officials were somewhat more than thorough. We’d been approached by a plain clothes officer who flashed an ID and asked to look in our Metal Mule boxes. Dave expressed doubts about his legitimacy and scuttled off to get the opinion of one of the cops in the police post. These doubts earned us a root and branch exploration of everything in the boxes, with our ‘Interide’ two-way radios and extensive medical kit subjected to additional scrutiny. Eventually I was taken into a room and feeling a bit desperate by this time I said, ‘look, we’ve got no drugs, no guns, nothing illegal, nothing worth hiding, what do you want?’ At this the officer’s mood changed for the better and he became quite friendly.
“All the officials at the border seemed to know about Riders for Health, some were themselves involved in local charities and as a result we spent more time than planned sitting with cops and customs officers talking about healthcare charities and Riders.
“The 10km road from the border to the ferry from Barra Terminal over the Gambia River to Banjul was a potholed and rutted disgrace and the ferry was worse. A long wait in blistering sun, as big metal gates were opened and closed innumerable times to prioritise those who’d paid the required bribes. Eventually we were let on to a floating cattle truck of a ferry with standing room only that gave us an insight into the life of a battery hen.
“The ferry company operated on the principle that the ferry only left when not one more person or vehicle could be crammed on board. Smashed and battered lorries jostled for an inch of room with beaten up cars and pick-ups of various marques. Pedestrians were crammed into every available space, with many trying to sell cold drinks in plastic bags, or offering to polish shoes. In one cramped corner a motorcyclist stood quietly by his Yamaha 200. He turned out to be a health worker from Riders for Health and we grinned as we recognised that both our bikes and his carried the same logo. Dave spent most of the three mile journey over the river chatting to this guy about his work for Riders.
“Nearly an hour later and the wheezing, overloaded ferry deposited us in the appalling squalor and heat of Banjul, Africa’s smallest and probably most impoverished capital city. Taking the first route out of town through hectic and squalid streets, filled with desperate looking street traders and vehicles which really were beyond final redemption, we rode the rutted and potholed roads in the direction of Serekunda, 20km away, and the Atlantic beach resorts where we rendezvoused with Barbara and Mutch.”
“And that’s where you saw me standing at the reception of Bungalow Beach, though you’d thought I wasn’t coming and completely blanked me.”
“Did I? oh sorry. More concerned with seeing me wife after a long trip.”
“Never mind.” I added, no offence taken.
Regular readers of The ROAD will understand that the purpose of the trip was in part to honour the efforts of Simon Milward the former FEMA General Secretary who died in a motorcycle accident in Mali last year and to promote the funding of the health care initiative he was involved with in Inonesia. In a manner of speaking the object of the excercise was also to finish Simon’s ride.
The original plan had been to bury a time capsule at the site of Simon’s accident in Mali but that posed a number of problems. We had learned that the road was a rough one and was likely to be developed in the future. What Dave and the Brigadier had seen on their epic journey south made them seriously question the likelihood of such a memorial lasting any length of time. What prospect was there that the canister would not be ploughed up, or stolen by one of the innumerable people who seem to pop up from behind a stone whenever you stop anywhere? It seemed likely that if locals were to spot the efforts in progress, there was a high probability that they might dig down to explore after we’d gone.
On reflection a fresh option presented itself. During our visit to the Riders For Health (RFH) base we learned that Simon had been heading there when he crashed and it seemed safer and more appropriate to bury the capsule at the location where he was headed – kinda ‘Journey’s End’ or similar. Phone calls were made to Simon’s mother and brothers and RFH themselves consulted. All were in favour of the plan and so it was that with the four of us present, plus the RFH Director and staff, we dug a hole by the wall at their HQ and after a brief service during which we remembered Simon’s life and the profound effect he had had on us all, we buried the canister which contained a number of personal messages and Simon’s artefacts.
A plaque will be made to put on the wall above the spot and should Riders For Health move their base the memorial and canister will travel to the new site so that a permanent place of remembrance can be established.
We learned much at Riders for Health which will help the team at Motorcycle Outreach develop the legacy that Simon left for us. Look out for a major feature on RFH’s Gambian work in the next issue.
So what happened to our intrepid Sahara crossing duo next? In the next edition of the ROAD, the Brigadier relates more tales of sand, roads and African culture. Read about the northward journey that they made both separately and together. Still to come: The Guns of Navarone, the Road of Hope, digging out of sand, ‘illegal’ alcohol deals, hot Sahel days, cold mountain nights, tales from the Kasbah, the long grinding miles of winter, repairs in Rabat and Berber’s Belly.
Words, Ian Mutch and Craig Carey-Clinch
Pictures, Dave French who is Irish
The return journey
Not content with crossing the Sahara North to South The Brigadier and Dave French who is Irish turned around and did it again – desert action with added Mrs Peel.
continued from Issue 3
“You must be bloody mad!” I said to Dave French who’s Irish. He’d just been outlining a ‘little tour’ that he’d planned for himself around the Casamance area of Senegal and in the western part of Mali. Looking at the map, it seemed to me that he was planning to take in half of West Africa, with a number of the roads he’d planned to ride either non existent, or very poor. “Well, Oi’ve been speaking to yer man over there and he reckons that all this is tarmac now” said Dave pointing at a huge swathe of empty map marked ‘ensablee’ – sand.
I pursed my lips, thinking back to Zebrabar and the ‘helpful’ German chap who told us that Banjul was an easy day’s ride from St Louis in Senegal – nearly two days as it turned out. I had come to treat ‘local’ knowledge with a degree of caution. Either folks operated in a different temporal zone to the rest of us, or they had breezed through difficult routes with four wheeled drives, equipped with desert tyres and enough spare fuel to keep the Afrika Corps on the move for a month.
My own plan involved easy stages as far as Nouakchott in Mauritania, allowing the opportunity to spend some days taking a more relaxed tour of the country that we had blasted through on a tight schedule a few days before.
However Dave was determined to give this route a go and more careful study of the map showed that although completing it involved a tough schedule of all day riding, the only real issue was a question mark over the 100km of ‘road’ between Diema and Nioro in Mali. “Oi’l turn back if that section turns out to be shite” said Dave.
Another modification of plans had also materialised in the form of Barbara who had arrived at Banjul complete with riding gear. We had only been married a few weeks when Dave and I had departed and she’d been feeling quite left out of things, being more used to accompanying Dave and myself on other long distance trips on her own bike. Upon arrival in Banjul she declared that she was determined to come at least part of the way back as long as the bike was capable of supporting the extra weight.
A bit cautious about the whole thing, I loaded up my GS Dakar with all my kit and the admittedly very small number of things she’d brought with her, filled the petrol and water cans and set off for a long test ride on Gambia’s dreadful roads with Barbara comfortably sat on the back.
As with everything else that the bikes had endured on the way to Gambia, the GS seemed to take the additional person and weight in its stride. There was no appreciable loss in power or braking and the rear suspension only required minor adjustment to compensate. Handling was fine.
I consulted Dave. “Ah, it’ll be a roit laugh” he said. “Yer-one is much more entertaining than you anyway. Besoides, you can have that honeymoon that you missed out on while Oi go off and do me Mali tour; indeed, indeed.”
I groaned. The pair of them had manoeuvred me into a corner. Dave got his Mali tour and Barbara got her wish to see the Sahara as well.
All in all we spent four days in Banjul. Riders for Health had been fantastic hosts, sending Ali, one of the founders of Riders in the Gambia, to look after and ferry us about in a 4WD.
We had spent a morning in discussions with Therese, ‘Riders’ Gambia Operational Director. She had briefed us on the system of Transport Resource Management and we learned that ‘Riders’ are managing the maintenance of the majority of healthcare vehicles in the country, in addition to the approximately 150 motorcycles which are used for primary healthcare activity.
The following day, Ali took us on a field trip to one of ‘Riders’ regional centres. This involved crossing the Gambia River again on the dreaded Banjul to Barra ferry, more opportunities to experience claustrophobic overcrowding of vehicles and people, while trying not to think about movies such as ‘Titanic’.
We saw ‘Riders’ bikes in action and spoke to some of the health workers who were gathered under a huge Baobab tree with their bikes. All were keen to tell us about their day to day work and describe some of the problems that they encounter.
The trip back to Banjul in Ali’s Toyota was interminable, involving a sweltering wait in the sun at Barra Terminal. Hustlers were everywhere, though aside from being concerned about pick-pockets we didn’t get hassled too much. More disconcerting was the fascination with which some seemed to view Mutch. Our esteemed Editor had an uncomfortable 20 minutes while a very small chap stood stock-still at his window looking at him with a nearly eyeball to eyeball serial killer stare.
All good things have to come to an end though and it was with a heavy heart that Barbara and I packed our GS in the pre-dawn gloom on December 1st. Dave was also planning to head south later that day, leaving Mutch to catch a flight back to London the following day. Both of them came to see us off from the car park of the Bungalow Beach hotel and picking our way through potholes, I turned the GS in the direction of London, 3,500 miles away.
We planned to make Kaolack in Senegal that day. A tough 110km of variable road. It didn’t take long to get to the Banjul/Barra ferry and this time we were loaded almost immediately.
Leaving Gambia along the badly potholed main road, we arrived at customs in good time in case of problems. This time all was straightforward.
More worrying and tense was being pulled over by some ‘customs’ officers a few miles into Senegal. These characters were dressed in bits of mismatching green uniforms and had a group of thuggish looking characters in civilian clothes and with a battered 4WD to support them. They had already pulled over a ‘Touba’ bus and were busy searching every corner, throwing things on the road and having heated arguments with the occupants.
Clearly this was trouble. These guys were fakes. There were no IDs and no guns, but there were machetes. The whole thing felt very menacing. Fortunately, this was one of many times when Barbara’s command of the French language helped to make a situation easier and although one of the green-clad toughs insisted on taking a cursory look in the Metal Mule boxes, after some conversation we were waved on our way.
We stopped for lunch and the heat of the day at a lovely clean little cafe further on and set out along a worsening road, aiming to get to Kaolack before dark.
Crossing the huge lake full of stinking sewage and smouldering rubbish which marks the southern edge of town (people actually live in this hellish mess), Kaolack seemed if anything more chaotic and filthy than before. But checking into the Hotel Paris, Barbara and I took off to enjoy the colonial delights of Chez Annour, where food and beer were gratefully consumed.
We rose pre-dawn expecting another blistering day and set off towards Dakar. It only took 20k to realise that we were absolutely freezing. The cold(ish) fingers of winter were slowly finding their way into Senegal, bringing much cooler nights than we had become used to.
A welcome coffee break at Mbour allowed an opportunity to plan the rest of the day. Our destination was Dakar where we hoped to spend two nights and take a look at one of Africa’s more developed cities. Besides, the idea of taking a BMW Dakar to Dakar had seemed a good one when originally planning the trip.
We soon wondered if we had made a huge mistake. To get to Dakar, one leaves the main loop of road which is Senegal’s primary network and heads off down a bumpy dual carriageway to the capital itself. This promising road soon gives way to a nightmare of traffic congestion, heat and fumes as the dual carriageway passes through a number of ‘suburban’ towns. Every one of these places is a bustling medley of crammed vehicles, street markets and checkpoints, with an all pervading stench of unwashed bodies, burning rubbish, sewage and rotting food hanging over the whole scene.
Then the nice(ish) main road simply vanished, to be replaced by gravel and holes and ruts – hell for any kind of motorcycle. Loose stones, bits of rubbish, broken glass and wire, all competing to see what can puncture tyres the fastest.
Fortunately, the tarmac reappeared and although undulating and potholed it felt good to be able to get ahead of the tooting lorries and homicidal taxis as we headed into Dakar itself, the tall buildings of the city rising out of the smog ahead of us.
Dakar mixes modern infrastructure development with the grubby semi-chaos more associated with other Senegalese towns. Any panoramic photograph of the city shows a modern skyline with impressive structures. Only at street level do you get a better feel of the real Dakar. Only main routes are tarmaced, with most side roads a mix of rubbish and potholes. It’s a busy place and vibrant with small business and a colourful mix of people going about their daily life, an almost extreme mix of rich and poor. Then there’s the hustlers.
Stopping outside a reasonable looking hotel, it took about 10 seconds for a dishevelled chap to latch onto us offering to be our guide, offering to take us to ‘his cousin’s’ hotel and so on. The hotel we were outside was full and after a minute or two trying to figure out the map, we took a risk and followed our new ‘friend’ to what had been billed as the best accommodation in town – if you believed what you heard. The Hotel was on one of the main streets in Dakar, a bustling place full of shops, markets and street trader stalls.
Barbara went in to check things out. I stayed with the bike, wary of the potential for theft. Hustlers immediately zoomed in on me, doing their best to flog their various wares in a much more aggressive manner than I’d encountered elsewhere. The more I said “no”, the harder the sell became. Things were getting rather uncomfortable and the crowd of desperados around me was growing when suddenly the minarets of the local mosques started their sonorous wailing. As if by magic, the hard sell stopped, out came the prayer mats and relative peace descended as the call for prayers was answered.
Although the street around me didn’t exactly grind to a halt, the faithful made it their business to make life difficult for those who didn’t have a mind to observe the mullahs. Lines of genuflecting men spread out from the pavements right across the road, bringing the traffic to a halt. These guys seemed to have no concern for their safety, with two characters practically under the wheels of a bus which had only just pulled up in time.
Barbara reappeared. “It’s a poo-hole, lets get the hell out of here.” Easier said than done I thought as she climbed aboard and I started the engine, trying to figure out how I could avoid running over one of the prone figures on the street.
We stopped a few streets further on and consulted the map again. The Lonely Planet recommended the nearby Hotel Oceanic, so heading along some rough side roads, we pulled up in a quiet street outside what proved to be a very nice, if faded and basic, French colonial hotel.
Later that day we took a walk to see what Dakar had to offer. The city has a bad reputation for muggings, scams and petty theft. But aside from endless hassle from street traders and hustlers we didn’t feel at all threatened.
There’s plenty to see in Dakar if you’re into cities with a different feel – a real clash of the modern, with traditional African sitting uneasily beside this. Modern buildings jostle with old French structures, with tin huts or rubbish strewn waste ground in the gaps. Traffic noise, fumes and crowds of people sit alongside an exotic range of colourful street trade. Food sellers were everywhere, preparing offerings from rickety stoves on the pavements. Stalls selling wood carvings, ethnic jewellery and other touristy items often also sold small birds and animals.
One of the best value restaurants in town is the ‘La Dagorne’ which was fortunately adjacent to our hotel. The food is French in flavour, clean and low priced. Relaxing after a good steak, we considered our options. Neither of us was keen to spend another day in Dakar, but we didn’t want to get too far ahead of our itinerary. Our musings were interrupted by an Essex voice from behind saying “Sorry for interrupting, but why don’t you check out the Ile de Goree?” Essex man and his wife were on a package holiday. They both felt similarly to us about Dakar and had escaped to the small island just a 15 minute ferry ride from Dakar. They related a tale of tranquillity and historic interest that sold us on staying in Dakar for another day.
And indeed it was so. The small Ile de Goree turned out to be a wonderfully peaceful place of great beauty. No motorised vehicles are allowed in the narrow streets which seemed to be straight out of the French colonial history books. Hustlers were much rarer and certainly more polite and it was pleasant just to wander through the town exploring the narrow paths and enjoying the calm ambiance. Wandering out of the down and up towards the World War Two fortress of Le Castel at the northern edge of the island, we explored the extensive fortifications which include two 16 inch guns which sank the HMS Tacoma during the war (the ferry to the island goes around the site) This impressive ordinance apparently became famous as the weapons which were the inspiration for the movie ‘The Guns of Navarone’.
Among other island attractions, we visited the pace known locally as Maison des Esclaves – the House of Slaves. A famous doorway opens directly from the slave cells to the sea, where ships would lie waiting to transport their tragic cargos to the New World. It’s one of those places which makes one sit back and think for a bit and the building has enormous spiritual significance for black Americans in particular, whose ancestors were shipped as slaves to America.
Remembering our buttock-clenching entry to Dakar, we elected to leave before first light the following morning. The noise of generators during the late night power cuts didn’t do much for a good night’s sleep, but we were still able to get on the road in good time to beat the local rush hour. Heading north towards St Louis, we stopped in Thies for perhaps the nicest coffee and breakfast of the whole trip. Thies is one of the more pleasant towns in Senegal. More or less hassle free and clean quiet streets, with plenty of official-looking Government buildings.
Heading onwards, the heat shimmered on the road ahead as we avoided badly driven Touba buses and kept a weather eye on the rear view mirror for the numerous overloaded Mercedes which were being driven like formula one racing cars. Several rehydration stops brought a variety of people out to make small-talk, or stare in wonder at the rich western ‘Two-Bobs’ (us) who had entered their impoverished lives for a brief moment or two. Young boys would yell “Dakar, Dakar!” at us when they saw the model name on the GS. The Dakar Rally, which was due to start just after we arrived home, is big news in Senegal.
Finally, we reached the causeway piste which led to Zebrabar and once again had the great pleasure of a Swiss welcome to that wonderful and peaceful place.
The trouble with Zebrabar is that it can kind of ‘eat you up’. An odd way of describing the effect the place has perhaps, but it becomes very easy to let the world go by in timeless fashion, the day’s agenda only dictated by mealtimes and the sunset. We took one of the ethnic round huts that overlooks the estuary and enjoyed the company of fellow travellers, read books, or walked the beaches, taking amusement from annoying the huge colonies of Fiddler Crabs which covered every available inch of shoreline sand in the area.
This time there were more motorcyclists. Fellow two-wheeled travellers who were also hiding from the world for a few days. All had BMWs and were happy to laze about with us and chat over numerous large bottles of ‘Gazelle’ beer.
Also taking time out were a couple of Dutch lads who were driving an old, but very well equipped Toyota Landcruiser. One of them had been north as far as the border with Western Sahara and had enjoyed several days driving desert and bad piste along the route of the ore train. He had made it to Choum and Atar, but had spent so much time digging himself out of sand that he headed straight down the main road to meet his mate who had flown into Dakar. Their plan was to re-enter Mauritania and drive up the beach to Nouakchott.
Martin, our Swiss host remarked
“Two things. Don’t cross the border at Rosso and secondly, avoid the brown sand — stay on the yellow sand.” He stopped for a moment of reflection. “Brown sand is waterlogged. Bad news”
“So that would be the end of that then?” I asked.
“No” replied Martin “But it could be days of digging to get out. Much good work.” More beer was opened as we all reflected on Martin’s interpretation of ‘good’ work.
The following day, our two Dutch friends packed up their Landcruiser and headed for the Mauritanian border. We wished them well not expecting to see them again. However just as the evening dinner bell was being rung, the pair appeared again looking hot and dishevelled.
“What happened?” I called out.
“Beer.” They said in unison giving a good impression of zombies who had had enough for the day. Over dinner they related a sorry tale of woe. Arriving at the Diama Dam crossing into Mauritania, they had left Senegal and presented themselves at Mauritanian customs. Our man who had flown into Dakar didn’t have a visa for Mauritania, with this only being available at Rosso. So they both had to turn-tail and re-enter Senegal, trying to persuade themselves that Rosso couldn’t be that bad.
It was. Leaving and re-entering Senegal in the same hour meant that officials were able to gleefully declare that ‘there was a problem’. When this had been finally sorted out hours later (they didn’t say how much had to be paid) and exit visas had been stamped, a ‘problem’ had been declared relating to their Toyota’s Carnet. Again, the out/in stamps on the same day were the issue.
Hours later, they started to get desperate. Fantastic sums of money had been quoted and the correct official was either ‘not there’, ‘at lunch’, ‘at prayers’, ‘five minutes away’, ‘ten minutes away’, ‘almost here’ and so on. The guy was actually sitting in the corner waiting for Dutch patience to run out and money to come his way.
Officially they had left Senegal, so the Rosso authorities had them by the balls. Both weren’t budging on the financial issue and with the last ferry about to leave for Rosso Mauritania and the prospect of a dodgy night on a lawless quayside, they re-entered Senegal and high-tailed it back to Zebrabar, 90 minutes away.
Both were totally exhausted. It had been a burning hot day and they were completely demoralised and extremely angry at the way they’d been treated.
I listened to all this with mounting concern. I had been considering the northern route for some days and was concerned about the wisdom of tackling the 100km Diama/Rosso Piste two-up. Not because I was worried about the bike, more because of the time it would take me as an inexperienced off-road rider to traverse the route two-up. I also knew that the Rosso to Nouakchott road was poor enough to make it dangerous to ride at night and the Diama route meant riding from Zebrabar to Nouakchott in one hit.
Therefore, my plan had been to brave Rosso on the way north, with this idea based on reports that it was a great deal easier than trying it north/south. Our Dutch friends experience did not auger well for this though.
Another funny thing about travel is that sometimes other people’s bad experience hardens one’s resolve to try and overcome the difficulties encountered. So after thinking about things further and discussing the whole thing with Barbara and other travelling folk, we decided to go for it. Martin, our Zebrabar host, shook his head and smiled. “send me a postcard from Rosso.” He said.
That evening we heard from Dave. He’d been keeping in regular contact via text message, or through the many teleboutiques – phone shops – that are a feature of Africa. He was now in Ayoun el Atrous having completed 150km of tough piste between Diema and Ayoun and was running ahead of time. He expected to reach Nouakchott a day early.
After a last night of good company and the wonderful peace of the palm-fronded coast, leaving the calm of our Senegalese oasis was a wrench, but the journey had to continue.
The 150km run to Richard Toll, where we planned to spend the night before tackling Rosso, was one of the less pleasant rides on the trip. Douane officials at several checkpoints conspired to burn up time and it was a very hot afternoon. The road took a turn for the worse and for a time it seemed as though the piste might have been a better option as I steered the Dakar around an obstacle course of bike sized potholes.
Richard Toll lies alongside the River Senegal in what can be described as serious malaria country. It’s the centre of Senegal’s sugar industry and is dominated by a large processing plant which emits a noxious stench. The edge of town is lined with the usual shanties, but even the centre of this commercial centre is very shabby and run down.
Arriving there at last light, it initially proved impossible to find somewhere to stay among the busy streets and markets. Stopping the bike outside the Chateau de Baron Roger, the Claude Richard designed gardens of which lend the town its name (Richard Toll means ‘Richard’s Garden), we both began to wonder if we’d made a big mistake. The combination of a run down town of ultra inquisitive people, buzzing clouds of mosquitoes in the dusk light, combined with no tent and nowhere to stay, could have very unpleasant consequences.
Finally, after yet another run up the main street, Barbara spotted a battered sign for the Gite d’Etape, the hotel that we’d heard about and heading down a dirt track we found ourselves outside what we took to be an abandoned building. A small wrinkled figure appeared from behind a low wall.
“Yes this is the hotel. We have rooms. I take you though.”
We parked the bike and walked around the corner to be greeted by yet another of those wonderful inversions that Africa can spring upon the traveller. Dirt, dust and decay was replaced by a serene view across well tended lawns, a swimming pool and open-air bar, towards the best aspect of the River Senegal that we had seen so far.
Raiding the Border
5am. Furious packing and loading took place, while Barbara negotiated the bill for the previous night. We got away before 6, stopping only to fill up with ‘Super’. Then a dash up the Rosso road as quickly as the light of a fast approaching dawn would allow.
What’s this? Oh no, not another checkpoint. This guy is OK. He’s regular Douane. Very friendly. Tells us to “ignore everything you see and go straight to the ferry port gates. Don’t stop, don’t talk to anyone – they want to take all your money.” A friendly wave and we’re on our way into town. Rosso. Full of dead trucks, filth and ruined or half patched up buildings. People stirring into life from piles of blankets all over the pavements and in every available doorway. People catch sight of us and try to run alongside shouting “Stop! Talk to me – I can help you!” We push on without slowing. A few minutes later and we’re weaving in and out of closely packed vehicles. The gates. Stop, put the GS on its stand. Act deaf and stay focused.
“I’ll stay with the bike,” says Barbara.
I head through a wicket gate. Think about riding the GS through – it’s wide enough. Too many guys wanting me to do just that. Sense a trap and move on. Customs. It’s shut. I bang on the door. Sleepy uniform answers.
“Stamp this.” I say, thrusting the Carnet in his face. Bleary eyed he looks at me, takes the Carnet and slumps behind a desk. “OK It’s early, but no problem. A nervous wait as he reads the Senegal page from top to bottom.
“Sign here and here” I indicate.
“Stamp here and you keep this part”. “OK,” he says. “I’ve just been posted here, this is the first one of these that I’ve had to do. Boss always looks after Carnets.” He motioned towards a snorting bundle of rags which partially hid the form of an obese caricature of the African border official. Clearly the guy who creates and solves customs ‘problems’ in these parts. Bang! Down goes the stamp.
“No, no money”. He says, I offer the guy a full packet of cigarettes – he’s clearly in for some heat when boss-man finds out that he ‘let one go’. He refuses, smiles and shakes my hand. I’m outa there. Back through the gates. Next stop police. Two or three guys run alongside. “You need my help, police here police there, no not police yet, change money first”. Ignoring them, I enter a low building guarded by two tough looking characters with rifles.
Now comes a language barrier. Police with heavy gold braid seem fine enough, but my French isn’t up to the questions. A tall, slim and quite beautiful woman carrying a bag of bananas says in perfect English.
“They only want to know how many miles you are travelling today.” She translates. Stamps in both passports. No cadeau needed for the Police. I offer a few Francs to the woman. She gives me two bananas.
Senegal, some of the best people in the world – and some of the worst.
Back to the gates. The ‘gate-keeper’ announces himself – a portly gentleman in flowing robes. “I get you in, 10 Euros.”
“No” I say. “5,000 francs”. This is about 7 Euro. A short conversation. He agrees.
Off to the final building. The sun is up, everyone’s awake. A queue outside the police station. One hustler is different from the rest. He’s been following me about, but not making a fuss, or giving me hassle. I take a risk and talk to him. He’s Gambian. Stuck at Rosso for some time, looking to raise money to get though to The Gambia. Maybe true, maybe not. He’s chewing one of the narcotic sticks that are ubiquitous in these parts; so perhaps his dream of home drifts away each day in a haze of mild addiction. He’s quiet and unassuming, so I ask him for help getting to the front of the growing queue.
It seems like a moment later and I’m standing in a crowd around a table which is empty apart from a tall pile of driving licenses and insurance documents. Mine keeps finding its way to the bottom of the pile as different hands emerge from the waiting throng to rearrange the order of documents. My Gambian moves in from time to time to move my papers to the top of the pile, muttering under his breath in the local tongue to those around him.
A yawning and stretching cop appears at a large man-sized hole in the wall between two offices. With a great flourish he pulls a ledger and a pile of stamps from a locked cabinet. The muttering stops as the policeman with great ceremony sinks into a chair behind the desk.
He opens his ledger and lays out his stamps. The throng presses closer around the desk and the document rearranging takes on a new fervour. The ‘Emperor of the Desk’ ignores this quiet flurry of activity and waits for a moment.
As if on cue, money starts to appear. CFA notes start waving about, some money is swapped between individuals and documents get moved about on the pile.
“Offer 10,000 franc” says my Gambian. I proffer 10 Euro instead (6000 CFA). The addition of my European money to this strange tableau prompts more muttering, but at this point the cop takes the documents at the top of the pile. Some CFA notes from the one of the hands go straight into his pocket as starts writing laboriously into the ledger. Document shuffling continues as the cop reaches for the next set of documents and in an easy motion transfers money to his pocket with one hand while he starts writing with the other.
Meanwhile, the Gambian has been muttering furiously to those around him and it seems as though my documents are now staying somewhere near the top of the pile. More hands, more money and the order of documents changes again. The Emperor ignores this new activity and reaches for the top set of papers. Mine! My 10 Euro disappears in an easy motion.
“Profession?” barks the cop
“Employe” I reply. A few moments of laborious handwriting and I’m done.
The Gambian follows me as I track down the portly gatekeeper, who has already unlocked the gates in anticipation of my arrival. Out to the bike, scatter the crowd of hustlers as the GS engine starts and we’re through the tiniest of gaps which the gatekeeper has opened for us. The gates slam behind to a clamour of yelling from the crowd outside.
We’ve done it in under an hour. Clearly, the early start at Rosso was a good plan, but what now? The ferry is on the other bank, about a quarter of a mile away and is showing no sign of moving.
“It comes at 9am, I get you straight on”. My Gambian said. The problem is that 9am African time could be any time at all.
We settle down to wait as the morning heat starts to build. A crowd of hustlers which had accosted Barbara, came through the wicket gate and were once again hanging around the bike giving us general grief. We did out best to ignore this and waited quietly. In the meantime small hands persistently ran their hands over our luggage, testing the bungies, trying out the locks on the Metal Mule boxes. I wandered down to the waterfront to sit quietly and smoke a cigarette. It was really quite a nice spot. If it wasn’t for the air of desperation and hassle, Rosso Port would even be described as a lovely place. People plied trade in food, fishing boats were being prepared for the river and young women, naked to the waist, washed clothes in the river.
Then a flurry of activity from across the water. Distant shouts and the sound of a roaring, worn diesel engine. The ferry started its slow journey over the river.
It’s arrival prompted a dodgems style jostling of vehicles large and small. Ferry workers tried to keep some order in the loading process, but were largely ignored. Seeing a gap I rode down the ramp and onto the ferry, ignoring someone in dirty overalls who was gesticulating for us to stop.
Similarly to Barra, the ferry departed only when it seemed about to sink with the excessive weight of overloaded vehicles. The worn engine thundered as we crossed to the Mauritanian side and the huge crowd of waiting people on the ramp and surrounding jetties. Once we docked, all hell was let loose. Uniforms and civilians ran up the ramp shouting and pushing. Engines roared and the car behind us tried to push the GS off the boat. Almost losing balance on the bike, I just got it upright again when an angry individual in ‘police’ uniform started yelling “give me your papers, your passport, your Carnet NOW!” into my face.
I wasn’t going to fall for this fake cop routine and I knew that I was entitled to be seen by officials in the proper office, so I held my ground. This guy got angrier and angrier. Things were starting to look ugly, when Barbara said quietly “I think he may be a genuine customs guy.” I looked him up and down again as he continued to shout at me. It didn’t seem that we were going to get past this guy, so I handed over our papers.
He promptly vanished and we moved the GS up to a group of buildings which housed customs and immigration.
A hustler appeared holding our papers. “You follow me.” he said. I couldn’t believe it. The cop had given our papers to a hustler!
I followed our new ‘guide’. Firstly the Carnet. Mauritanian customs were no problem. The guide gave him the carnet and it was quickly stamped. No cost. The officer looked at the guide and said to me, “This person is dirt. He is nothing. Get rid of him if you can.”
Once out of the office I made an attempt to get our papers back. I seized the Carnet and stuffed it in my jacket, but the guide started yelling “crazy English, you know nothing of our ways, you are mad” and as if by magic three or four other ‘guides’ appeared to support him. Further seizures of papers were no longer an option, but I was glad that I’d recovered the Carnet. Losing this would have been an £8,500 disaster.
Although this institutionalised corruption was making me seethe (it seems that the cops work with the hustlers to effectively extort cash from travellers who then share their ill-gotten gains between themselves and the police), our unwanted guide was quite efficient. Within 10 minutes we had passports stamped and vehicles registered. Then I was led over to pay for the ferry and finally had to pay off the guide and his mate who had apparently performed some unknown service or other. We’d heard some horror stories about how much people had been forced to pay, but the whole deal, including the ferry ticket came to about 35 Euro.
We headed north, keen to put some miles between us and Rosso before stopping for a break. We had taken on the reputed worst border in Africa and survived without losing all our money and we felt pretty good about it.
Once the Senegal River valley is left behind, the green countryside quickly gives way to red Sahel sand, with large numbers of Acacia trees growing in the arid wilderness. Buildings give way to huts and a busy business like air gives way to quiet stillness and isolation.
Although we were back in the desert, it didn’t seem that hot. Certainly it was hardly a mild summer’s day, but the ambient temperature wasn’t bothering me that much. Acclimatisation I suppose.
As we rode, the sand changed hue from red to different shades of yellow and orange and back to red again. Camels started to appear, sometimes eating the spiny Acacia, sometimes standing still. We saw the occasional person when we rode through villages of corrugated iron huts.
We approached Nouakchott about mid afternoon. Acacia-filled Sahel had already disappeared to be replaced by sand and rocks. Huge deep-desert style dunes were now becoming the norm. We also started seeing more traffic of the tragically battered and broken Mauritanian variety.
We headed for the centre of the city this time. I had no desire to show Barbara the Dante-esque desolation of the area of town near the beach and we were both becoming concerned about how we were going to find Dave in the Mauritanian capital. We turned off the good quality dual carriageway which traverses the city, down a broken street, covered in rubbish and broken glass, looking for someone who could give directions.
By the entrance to a very clean shop, in what was a pretty rough looking area, sat a man in blue Mauritanian robes washing his feet in a dirty bowl. Keen to help, he was quite happy to guide us to the two hotels if we were OK to follow him in his Mercedes.
After a five minute wait he appeared in the ubiquitous MOT failure of a car and stopping by us, he motioned over to a group of about six friends who had been hanging around trying not to look too interested in us. They all piled into the Mercedes and we set off, en-convoy back the way we had come.
We followed the Mercedes for about two miles and were just starting to wonder where the heck we were being taken, when parked by the kerb on the other side of the road was a GS Dakar, with Dave sat astride peering at a map. An incredible stroke of luck to meet him like this!
We stopped and waved. He rode over beaming from ear to ear, his face burning bright red from the desert sun and both his bike and Rallye 2 suit plastered with red mud, dirt and oil. “In all the cities, in all of the world, how did you come to end up in mine?” he said to general laughter and merriment.
We stayed at the Auberge Normandie. A travellers hostel and campsite right in the heart of the city. Secure parking in a high gated yard, room for camping and several dark cell-like rooms with low beds and little. Very basic, but just the job.
It was great to see the mad Irishman again. He’d had a terrific ride and although not having the chance to soak up the feel of Mali had covered considerable mileage though the Sahel and Desert. Casamance and Guinea Bissau also sounded like a great experience and he had much to tell. His GS bore testament to his ride, plastered with earthy souvenirs of his trip. The main cost had been to his tyres. The tread was wearing quite near to the minimum markers on my bike, on Dave’s, they were beyond that and heading for ‘rizla’ status.
Searching for beer, we headed to the Novotel a few streets away. Once inside, the difference between the world of wealth and the realities of everyday Mauritania were laid out to be seen in stark fashion. The Novotel was in an enclosed world of its own, where only the rich and privileged gained access. This was also reflected in the prices. Small tins of Heineken worked out at about £3.50 each. Meanwhile outside on the street, large sections of the populations grubbed a living on the streets, or in the desert on perhaps a dollar a day if they are lucky.
We left to look for more reasonably priced food and ate in a nice pizzeria a few blocks away where at least we knew that the Mauritanian Ougluiya that we were spending would go back into local pockets.
The next day a pre dawn start set us on the long Sahara road to Nouadhibou. This stage of the journey necessitated extra fuel. I had been concerned at the effect on the bike of a full jerry-can in addition to Barbara. Once again though, the GS stoically took the additional high-up weight in its stride and we headed purposefully out of Nouakchott for the last time and rode into the deep desert as the sun rose in the east.
It felt good to be once again riding with Dave and frequent photo and water stops allowed plenty of opportunities for the regular banter which we had enjoyed on the way down. This time joined in with by Barbara, who was careful not to take sides. It helped a long day pass more easily.
This stretch of desert is easily the most featureless of the whole trip, with long marches of dunes giving way within 150k to flat sand and gravel desert stretching from skyline to skyline. Colours were very different to the journey down. This was partly due to the change in the direction that light was coming from and partly because a layer of thin cloud created a different ‘feel’.
This time we exploited more photo opportunities and having a photographer in the form of Barbara with us, allowed some decent pictures to be taken for sponsors, plus some opportunities to mess about in the sand, fall off, get stuck and laugh out loud.
On the way down, there had been nothing about the condition of this long stretch of road to excite particular comment, but as the road ran out straight ahead northward on the return journey, we found that sand was increasingly encroaching on the tarmac. It was one of those things which helped to keep the senses sharp.
We took a break at the place which had become known as the Rehydration Tree. This was where I had needed to stop to combat early stages of dehydration on the way down. A group of figures emerged from one of a series of tin shacks which stood some way back from the road. Coming over, they offered us a large bowl of what turned out to be camels milk. I’d never tried it before and was surprised to find that it’s slightly lumpy, sweet taste was replaced with a very refreshing feeling in the mouth when swallowed.
Although we still had plenty of fuel due to the spare capacity of our cans, we stopped at a fuel station out of curiosity. Three fuel pumps were there; two diesel, one petrol. One of the diesel pumps leaned drunkenly on its mounts and the rubble forecourt was soaked in spilt fuel. It seemed that an entire family had emerged from a concrete shack to greet us. Lots of smiles all around, accompanies by comments in excited Arabic. Downturned mouths at the mention of ‘essence’ confirmed the continuing Saharan petrol drought. “But” exclaimed an excitable male member of the extended family; “you give me motorcycle and I give you my son!” and a baby was thrust in my face.
Being eyeball to eyeball with a small snivelling child with a snotty nose took me by surprise. Dave and Barbara laughed until it became clear that the guy was deadly serious about striking a deal. Making apologies we escaped to lots of shouting and waving from a family which seriously needed to get out of the sun for a while.
The road joined up with the route of the Ore Train. “Bloody shame you probably won’t get to see the Ore Train.” I yelled back at Barbara. “One of the modern wonders of the world you know.”
“Oh yeah?” she yelled back “So what’s that then?” Pointing ahead I made out a long line of low rail cars and a huge cloud of dust billowing over the road.
We caught up with and overhauled the very slow moving leviathan, the length of it meaning that we didn’t get to the front for a good 10km. We stopped and Dave ran across the desert with his camera at the ready.
The train was slowing down with an ear piercing and seemingly never ending shriek of brakes. Ore dust was pouring out of each car, caught by the wind and filling our eyes with grit. The train’s passing seemed never ending – an impressive sight.
Finally the last car passed and Dave wandered back “There’s about 150 carriages you know.”
Then with a thunder of huge diesels an empty train came the other way, building speed as it came. “Thought this thing only ran occasionally?” said Barbara. “Indeed, indeed. Looks like yer luck’s in” said the Irishman.
More pictures and we pressed on, overhauling the first train again. Day was giving way to late afternoon light and we were glad a few kilometres later to see the first of the two checkpoints which mark the approach to Nouadhibou.
While waiting for the obligatory, but laborious long-hand recording of our passport details, the first train hammered by again. This time right by the road. Impressive, huge, dusty and loud. The driver waving from his cab, along with the dust blackened hitchhikers in each car.
“So that’s the third time I’ve seen it” Said Barbara; impressed but trying not to show it. “Bloody men and big machines…”
So finally, Nouadhibou. Remembering the anxious hunt for fuel on the way down, we filled up the bikes before looking for accommodation. I debated getting shot of the fuel cans with Dave, but with no guarantee that G1, the isolated first and last fuel station in the Western Sahara, having gas meant that we felt it best to play safe and ensure that we had at least one full can.
That evening we stayed in another campsite-cum-auberge, which had great, if basic rooms. A meal of impressively large fish and beer at Restaurant Canaria once again and we tumbled into our beds for one of the best night’s sleep of the trip.
Another early start and our last day in Mauritania. A deep fog had settled overnight and the roads were wet, creating a nice slippery mess of wet diesel and finely ground dust. Dave was keen to see the ship wrecks which were known to clutter the coast at Nouadhibou in large numbers.
There must be dozens of ships on the beaches outside Nouadhibou. Some are abandoned wrecks, others insurance ‘jobs’ which had been sailed straight up to the beach and abandoned. Most are ocean going deep water trawlers, others quite large freighters. Riding carefully down the damp coast road in a fog which the sun was doing its best to dispel, the ships started to emerge ghost-like from the eerie early morning mist. We stopped to take some pictures and walked down the beach marvelling at all the wrecked and rusting tonnage which lay with a certain grand dignity at their final resting places. After coffee in a nice hotel, overlooking a bay which seemed alive with closely packed fish, we continued our journey north. The Ore Train went rumbling by again.
“That’s the fourth time” said Barbara wearily. “So we’re lucky if we see it heh?” I stayed silent. Leaving Nouadhibou behind we took the highway towards the border and after negotiating a few berms of sand across the road, arrived at the placid customs, army and police posts which marked our exit from Mauritania.
continued in issue 5
Dave went inland to Mali and the site of Simon’s accident
Having seen the detailed Mali police reports we searched the maps in vain for the road junction mentioned. No map showed any junction where a side road led to Sobokou from the main Kayes to Diboli road. The police report was explicit on this but the villages were too insignificant to appear on the few Mali maps which we could get hold of. In addition to the names of the villages to be reached from the junction we had the number of kilometres from Kayes. A major road building project had been completed since the accident and properly linked the city to the border crossing into Kidira in Senegal.
According to the pictures when Simon had been coming through this was just roadworks. Now it was a clean, straight, level and fully sealed two lane tar road. Kilometer posts were still haphazard but the surface was absolutely perfect. Inching along so as to avoid overshooting the spot I watched for any sign of a side road. I wondered if I was already past the place as there hadn’t been a kilometer post for miles. My enquiry with the policeman at the border had been a long shot and fruitless. While still worrying that the new road might not be following the old road I came to a junction leading to the villages of Daramane and Sobokou. The nearest kilometer post was far away but the odometer matched up. Leaving the bike I walked over to the accident site, stood and looked around. Coming from Kayes and travelling east to Diboli the road to Sobokou led off to the north north east. This was as close to being a baobab forest as these fantastic plants ever form but there were two particularly notable trees. Each baobab is unique and the background of the police photographs had featured a pair of baobabs wrapped around each other. I was already looking straight at it in real life. This clinched the location. Video and still cameras recorded the spot as I walked around and tried to reconstruct the scene in my head as it would have been without the new road. An old service road threading between the trees provided an idea of what the surface would have been like before the project was completed. Rutted, uneven, deeply sandy in places but with roots and rocks scattered randomly in the bulldozed debris. Roadbuilding around here could throw up a range of challenging interim surfaces from impassable clay to well-graded piste. The new road had an unusually good foundation and ran a few feet above the old road. Unlike most places in Africa nobody appeared in the few hours I was there. Traffic was extremely light consisting of a couple of lorries and a man on a scooter. A troop of baboons stood guard high in a distant tree as the sun sank across the African forest. This was a calm and peaceful spot.
Pictures by Craig Carey-Clinch, Mrs Peel and Dave French who is Irish
Motorcycles kindly supplied and prepared by Vines BMW of Guildford. Luggage by Metal Mule
Crossing the Sahara on BMWs
continued from Issue 4
In stark contrast to Rosso, a short wait and formalities completed we headed into the minefield and no-mans land. No demands for payment and no hustlers. Grand stuff.
Dave, who feels that minefields are great places to live, suggested that we stopped for lunch in the middle of the muddle of broken tracks and rock which make up the path to the border with Sahara Occidental; the Western Sahara of Morocco.
“Grand spot indeed.” The loony remarked as we munched on a meal of pastries, figs and biscuits which we’d picked up from Nouadhibou. The weird thing was that it was actually quite nice to sit in the sun of a cooler day than we were expecting, safe in the knowledge that no one was going to pop up from behind a rock and try and sell us something.
“Hey, you wanna sell some stuff, or buy anything?” The three of us spun around in unison. Unbelievable. There stood a small grinning Arab who had crept up from goodness knows where. Is there no end to African persistence?
It turned out that he scratched a living buying and selling car parts and exchanging money from a compound of wrecked vehicles just the other side of a small hill. We quizzed him about the minefield. “Oh, none just here” he said “But walk a minute away from the track and bang!” “No, no-one has blown up recently, but it does happen.”
He wandered off. “See, minefields really are grand places to live” said Dave French predictably. He’s not only Irish, he’s also barking mad it seems.
Moroccan formalities were similarly straightforward, though Barbara’s lack of visa for any downward journey through Morocco created some interest. A policeman said “Oh, we don’t do visas here, only at Ceuta. You’ll have to get one from the consul in Nouadhibou.” Faces dropped all round. “Hah, I got you there!” laughed the comedian copper. “Hah, bloody hah” I retorted. The cop continued to find the whole joke so amusing that he smeared the entry stamp in my passport.
Northwards through ever changing desert terrain. It was almost as though someone had decided to give all the boring flat sand to Mauritania and the beautiful wild and rocky outcrops of desert to Morocco. It was good to be back, riding past impressive dunes and wind blown rock, some with small piles of medieval looking stones neatly stacked on top by locals long gone.
G1 did have petrol and we pressed on to the beach where Dave took a swim on the way down. He’d already decided to camp there that night, while we pushed on 200 km further to Dakhla. Remembering the lovely spot on the way down it seemed like a good choice. “Great place, this beach” I yelled to Barbara behind me as we rode.
“Strange idea of a ‘great’ place.” Said Barbara after we’d stopped at the beach a few kilometres later. In the different light of a cooler day, what seemed a wonderful spot some weeks before was in fact a grubby rubbish strewn strand of sand and dumped rubble.
“Fine company I’m in” retorted my beloved. “This character here” she motioned to Dave “thinks that minefields are great places to live and my husband thinks that rubbish dumps make great beaches. I give up.”
“Remind me never to book a package holiday with you guys – we’d end up in Beirut.” She added.
“What’s wrong with Beirut?” Asked Dave. “Grand beaches and there’s been a ceasefire for years now.” Barbara laughed helplessly.
“Well Oim staying here anyway.” He added. “It’s possibly the last chance for some camping and Oim gonna take it. Besides all this rubbish seems to have been washed up, not dumped.”
We topped up the tank of my GS from Dave’s still full jerry can and Barbara and I resumed the journey up the road.
It was starting to get towards late afternoon and the westering sun cast strange light and shadows across the desert. Sand which seemed golden on the way down now appeared grey, then orange. Long shadows from small mesas created optical illusions on the road ahead. There was almost no traffic, just the occasional locally owned Landrover or European registered vehicle passing us heading south along the snaking road.
We stopped for a while near the Golfe de Cintra and I climbed a mesa to look at the sun sinking towards the ocean a mile or so away. Barbara found dozens of semi fossilised snail shells and carefully packed them in her spare clothes. It was warm and peaceful and nice just to spend a little time with just the two of us.
But the light was fading and we still had 100 kilometres to ride before reaching Dakhla. Pressing on we started to pass the beginnings of habitation, biking past closed fuel stations and small villages. In the distance the sky grew pale and then grey. Odd, as the sun was still up. Then, like a smothering blanket, a dense cloud of fog descended around us.
Knocking our speed back to about 35mph, we crept forward through the cool dim gloom. The desert that we could still see took on a cold haunting aspect and the GS’s mirrors and my visor fogged up. It was a strange world to ride in and not too unpleasant, just a very odd experience.
Then suddenly the fog lifted and ahead of us was the ‘outer marker’ police checkpoint at the head of the 40 kilometre peninsular which Dakhla occupies. A welcome, but brief respite and the fog clamped down again as we travelled the last few kilometres into town.
Another night at Hotel Doumes, followed by a leisurely breakfast and we lazily rode the 40 kilometres to the police checkpoint by the main north/south road, fully expecting Dave to be late.
“Oi’ve been here for over half an hour” he complained. “We’ve a lot of miles to roide today yer know.”
“Sorry mate” I said sheepishly. “But you have to admit, that you getting somewhere on time is a bit of a first.”
Dave grunted and started his GS and our two bikes headed northwards once again.
The ride was once again straightforward. The desert had flattened out and mile after lonely mile droned under our wheels. Being much more on what passed for the beaten track in these parts, the road once again had decent markings and traffic was heavier. The majority of this was fish trucks going to and from Dakhla and the huge markets in the north. Sometimes we’d pass lorries parked on the side of the road, with the driver draining melted ice and fish blood onto the verge. The stench was overpowering.
Unfortunately, this discarded blood found its way onto the highway and slick smelly patches were commonplace. Atlantic Route? We re-christened it the ‘Road of Blood’ as these fetid spillages and the slippery combination of blood and diesel on the road itself were commonplace all the way from Dakhla to Tan-Tan.
We stopped whenever there was something interesting to look at and we explored several dried river beds and ancient land-slips.
Not quite beating the falling sun, we made it to Laayoune just after dark. Traffic had become quite heavy as we neared Western Sahara’s capital and all of us were tired. So the sight of Hotel Stink was welcome. Less welcome was that it was full of UN types, so after cruising up and down the main streets of town, we settled on the reasonably priced Hotel Jodesa.
The original itinerary had called for us to ride all the way from Laayoune to Agadir the following day, but after riding the distance between these two towns in one hit when travelling down to West Africa, we decided to break the journey home in Tan-Tan. This allowed a chance to see the small town of Tarfaya and the monument to Antoine de Saint Exupery, the aviation pioneer.
On the way we crossed the unannounced border into Morocco itself, finally leaving the deep desert lands behind us and returning to a country which lies on Europe’s doorstep. A few miles further on a break was taken at the edge of a vast hole in the ground which spread into the distance, the edge a dramatic escarpment rather like the place in ‘Ice Cold In Alex’ where the heroes of the movie descend in their overlanding ambulance into a huge desert Depression in a bid to escape the Africa Corps.
Not feeling too much like John Mills, Anthony Quayle and Sylvia Syms, we moved onto Tarfaya, which proved to be a faded town of great character. There was a magnificent promenade and clean beach. The monument was nearby and proved to be a large rusting model of a biplane. Some local lads came over to practice their English and we gained the impression of Tarfaya as a fairly relaxed town, the most southerly in Morocco.
Late in the afternoon, the Road of Blood passed very near the sea for the last time on the northward route through the Sahara. We rode down some rocky tracks to the beach and took a break. This was a place called Tan-Tan Plage, remote and beautiful. The beaches and rocky ground was scattered with small fishermen’s huts, with the occasional moped parked outside.
Riding up the steep track to the road, I stopped at the top, realising that it had only taken a few moments to ride the 300 yard piste from the beach to the road; and this two-up. The nervous rider who had fallen off after riding about 10 yards off road into sand a few weeks earlier had been replaced with someone far more confident in both his bike and his own abilities. It was a good feeling and made me realise that I would miss riding the Sahara.
The short journey inland to Tan-Tan went via two vast and steep ridges in the land. We overtook several lorries, grinding along in first gear to reach the top of the second ridge, which had a spectacular view of Tan-Tan and the hilly countryside around.
Coasting into town, we pulled up at The Hotel Sable D’or and checked in. An enquiry about the possibility of beer at reception drew a blank. “But” said our female hostess “My son knows someone who may know how to buy beer. You go with him.”
Leaving Barbara at the hotel, we walked towards the centre of town with a Moorish looking chap who didn’t have much to say for himself, apart from the occasional, “follow me”, or “Down here”. Tan-Tan is a real gem of a place, with well laid out streets and an extensive market. Shops sold just about everything imaginable and a wonderful vibrancy pervaded the atmosphere.
Our man flagged down a mate of his in a car with cracked windows. We all jumped in and roared off for a bewildering tour of town at high speed. Dave kept his GPS on and figured out that when the car stopped 10 minutes later, we were about 100 yards from where we had been picked up. There was no charge for this strange ride. Then followed a circuitous route on foot which took us eventually up a narrow dimly-lit alley where our guide asked us to wait.
As he walked further up, a figure extracted himself from a door way and a hushed conversation took place. Our man returned and said “Give me 300 Dirham. I can get 11 beers.”
Taking our grubby notes, he disappeared with what must have been the look-out into the doorway and reappeared after about five minutes with a black carrier bag. “I have beer, we must go now.”
No mad car ride this time, just a long walk through the interestingly diverting market and back to the hotel. A can of beer to our man for his troubles later and Dave and I burst into our hotel room laughing at the experience of ‘scoring’ beer and relating the amusing experience to a bemused Barbara.
The following morning was our last in the Sahara. Passing regretfully under the Kissing Camels of Tan-Tan we headed for the distant hills of the Anti Atlas and through dramatic ever-rising scenery of the Edge of the Sahara. We stopped briefly just before Guelmim, on the actual edge of the desert to take a few photo and acknowledge our goodbyes to the most amazing of riding experiences.
Climbing aboard the bikes, we waved to a couple who came roaring by, heading south on a heavily overloaded 1970s Meriden Triumph Bonneville. Hats off to life’s truly intrepid motorcycle explorers!
After Bouizakarne, the Anti Atlas rise quickly to about 3,000 feet and through a wonderful rocky landscape mottled with smallholdings, with numerous dry-stone walls, winding their way among the hills and valleys. Occasional small towns doubled as truck stops, with parked trucks almost hidden by the haze of brochette barbeque smoke from the numerous small eating places.
We slowly wound our way through hairpins, locked behind lorries which tried to use the entire road on blind corners, stopping occasionally where the dramatic views allowed a photo opportunity.
Soon we were travelling downhill and out into a plain near the city of Tiznit. We stopped for a break and some fuel.
“Oi reckon that this road here could be grand.” Said Dave pointing to the map. He was suggesting taking one of the Michelin ‘green routes’ from Tiznit to Agadir, via the mountain town of Tafraoute.
Barbara and I also peered at the map. “Yup, looks like a good trip OK.” I said “But I reckon that it would have to be a bit of a thrash if we’re to make Agadir tonight.”
“Indeed, Indeed.” Said Dave “Think Oi’ll give it a go anyway. Wanna come along?”
Barbara shrugged her shoulders in a non-committal fashion “Nah, perhaps not this time, I think we’ll head to Agadir, make an early stop, get us all a room and chill out for a bit.” I said.
“No probs.” Frenchie replied “Get me a beer in and I’ll see yer later!” He started his engine and roared up the road in a cloud of dust.
100 fairly bland kilometres later, broken by coffee at a pavement bar which doubled as a truck stop for several identical heavy duty Renault pick-ups, we found ourselves fighting Agadir’s rush hour traffic. And after quickly finding somewhere to stay and texting the details to Dave, we retired to the comfortable sofas of the bar to watch the world go by.
“They have a dreadful karaoke act and pub singer here.” I said to Barbara. “So dreadful, it’s almost laughable.”
As if on cue a lean and very dark Moroccan appeared at reception, hauling PA equipment and a synthesiser keyboard. A few minutes later and he was set up for the evening, running through his selection of canned music, a few bars at a time, at a volume which was enough to send even cockroaches scuttling to the corners.
I winced. “Time to find somewhere to eat I think. Dave will just have to text us when he arrives.”
We wandered out of the hotel and along the sea front and settled down to a nice meal of fish, washed down with some the excellent local wine. It got dark and as time ticked by, we wondered how Dave was getting on.
The problem is that things like this prey on the mind and by 9.30pm, I was becoming quite alarmed about his whereabouts. Then my phone beeped. ‘Checked in’ said the message.
We met Dave back at the hotel. He was grinning and working bottles of Flag into himself as fast as he could. “What a bloody ride!” he exclaimed. “It was grand for the first half of the route, but then it got dark. Trucks all over the road, cars swervin’ about, feckin’ dangerous so it was. Then it got bloody cold and there I was inching along at about 2mph on this really bad road.
“Mind you, here now.” He finished and raised his glass.
“Was it worth it?” said Barbara.
“Indeed, indeed, grand views of the mountains. Took loads of pictures.”
“Have you eaten?” I asked.
“Yup, a pizza at that English place next door.” He replied while waving to get the attention of the bar staff.
The following day we only planned to ride as far as Essaouira and then take a day off. Before leaving, it seemed only fair that Barbara had a chance to see the fantastic view from the old Kasbah and after filling the fuel tanks we headed up the winding road to the top of the splendid overlook of the surrounding area.
We were joined by a fellow overlander on his BMW R1200 GS that we had met in the fuel station. He blatted in and out of the traffic as we followed in a more measured fashion. This guy seemed to know some of the locals and it turned out that he spent a great deal of his time in Morocco, only heading back to Europe when he had to every few months. “Life’s better here.” He said.
Two months before I would have thought such a sentiment to be completely bonkers, but having had a chance to spend an extended time in North and West Africa I was much more sympathetic to such a view. Life is undeniably tough in Africa, it can be dirty, on rare occasions dangerous and health is always an issue. The ‘African time’ that officials operate on can be mind-numbingly tedious. But in the Muslim cultures we visited – so often viewed as oppressive by our media and politicians – the sense of community, the true freedom of the roads, the true friendliness of people, the lack of commercialism, absence of any form of political correctness and puritanical nimbysim was making me really wonder about the kind of lives that we are creating for ourselves in Northern Europe.
We bade goodbye to our friend on the 1200GS and set off up the coast road northwards, passing through small towns which catered for the European surfing trade. We stopped a few times along the coast to admire the huge surf and the skill displayed by refugees from Cornish winter weather and from elsewhere in Europe, where the surf is good, but the water frigid.
Leaving the coast behind us, the road wound its way through rolling stony hills full of Argan trees. Local people hopefully waved large jars of Argan oil from makeshift stalls by the side of the road. We only stopped once though and that was to stroke some camels and chat to the herder, who was also looking after a party of goats. One camel was genuinely friendly, the other one seemed more interested in chewing on Dave’s Rallye suit.
Arriving in Essaouira later that day, we checked into a nice place on the seafront, with excellent views of the long, clean beach, with the bay beyond and the rocky outcrops of a small island.
Dave had been rather quiet all day, not saying much when we stopped and seeming to struggle with an internal problem. I did wonder if Barbara and I had managed to piss him off, but he replied to concerned comment with “No, no, everything’s grand.”
That evening he owned up to feeling like death warmed up. “That bloody pizza I reckon.” He said. “Already been to the bog about three times.” He felt up to some dinner though and we strolled the half mile into the old town.
Dave had enthused about the Chez Sam restaurant on several occasions, having had a memorable fish dinner there in 2000. The place is right inside the small port and we arrived just as it was getting dark. The port itself was showing no signs of winding down though and many of the traditionally built trawlers were getting ready to put to sea, while others, packed with hard working crew, were chugging into the harbour to moor among crowds of people waiting to open the holds to offload the catch while the boat itself was turned around to put to sea once again.
Chez Sam was right by the entrance to the harbour and our table afforded a view of all that was going on in the port. The restaurant itself had a theme which was a cross between an old ship and a traditional old pub, rather like many found in the English countryside.
The following morning Mr French didn’t appear. I banged on his door “You OK in there?” A groan and I opened the door. Poor old Dave looked like death warmed up. “Oi think the pizza finally got me” he groaned. “Not just shits either, Oi feel roit rough and Oi don’t think Oi’m goin’ anywhere until this thing works its way out of me system.”
There wasn’t much we could do really. It was a classic case of food poisoning which only time and some rest would sort out.
Barbara and I hung around the hotel that day, which wasn’t too bad as the place had good facilities and an excellent coffee bar next door. From time to time we checked on ‘yer man’ who looked awful, but was being stoic about the whole thing. He didn’t show any signs of getting worse which was a relief.
The following morning Dave felt much better. We all had a light breakfast in his room and discussed what to do. Dave was still weak and wasn’t sure he could travel too far from a toilet, so pressing on to Rabat, our next scheduled stop, was out. This raised an immediate problem with ferry and flight bookings. An extra day meant missing the ferry from Bilbao and subsequently, Dave’s flight to Poland.
Barbara hit the phone and found that changing the ferry booking was easy enough, though missing the new booking, meant a long ride through a frozen France. Dave’s flight was also re-booked
Yer Man felt well enough to get up later in the morning, so we took a gentle stroll to explore the town. We loitered around the port, taking pictures of the boats and the hubbub of activity. After this we wandered the old town and Kasbah, enjoying the Portuguese fortifications and market wares.
Lunch was at a pavement fish bar and we enjoyed meals that we picked out ourselves from a stall at the front, a great display of variety and colour from the various species of fat fish which were offered. Barbara’s live Cray Fish made a valiant escape bid from the tray after they had been selected, but before long they were cooked and served up along with our other meals of Bass and Bream washed down with clean water. Dave cautiously stuck to a very light meal. However, it seemed that the sickness part of his Berbers Belly had finally worked its way out of his system and lunch brought colour back to his features.
That evening we ate in the Hotel Villa Maroc. Barbara had found this place in the Lonely Planet and we had booked during the late afternoon. The meal had to be paid in advance and the menu chosen to allow enough time for the hotel to purchase the food. It was all rather exclusive. The Villa Maroc itself is a converted medieval town-mansion with small courtyards open to the sky and numerous passages, communal areas and small rooms making up a labyrinthine hotel. The place dripped with traditional style and antiques. We ate in a private suite with beautiful décor and a roaring fire. It was one of those places which engendered total relaxation assisted by pleasant conversation and good food. Highly recommended and less than £10 each for a five star experience.
Dave got us out of bed earlier than usual the following morning. “I’ve packed extra bog roll and I wanna travel.” He declared. We loaded the bikes and with some regret set off once again.
We chose to ride the coast road via Safi and El-Jadida and joined a chilly road out of town.
Very quickly, sand and rock gave way to green grass and scrub. The road wound its way along a dramatic coastline with tumbling cliffs and long beaches. The rolling hills covered in welcome green pasture after weeks of desert sand and glare. Dry stone walls divided the hillsides and long, low stone buildings became the norm. Several photo opportunities afforded themselves and it was nice to have the excuse to stop and warm up.
We stopped in Safi for coffee, after passing through an unpleasant industrial complex on the edge of town. This place was a huge chemical works, disgorging millions of gallons of effluent straight into the sea. An unpleasant scar on a beautiful landscape. The greater prosperity of the town was obvious, both in the condition of the buildings and the large number of new cars on the streets.
Between Safi and El-Jadida, the land gave way to intensive agricultural small holdings. We passed pick-up after pick-up loaded with carefully packed vegetables of every kind imaginable.
El-Jadida is a resort which caters for Moroccans and wide boulevards passed through tall white buildings. We took lunch in a roadside café. The brochettes and Coke were welcome enough, but not the extortionate bill.
The road north is immediately of excellent quality. The wide smooth tarmac was a contrast to weeks of rougher road and occasional track. The only problem was that any sense of road sense among the local drivers seemed to vanish and we found ourselves competing with Parisian style driving aggression and high speed overtaking.
A few miles of this tiring riding and we entered a bustling town which was full of trucks and long queues of traffic. After being diverted down a side road and after a further two kilometres the road suddenly improved once again and took us out onto a motorway slip road.
After a month of the most varied riding conditions we had ever encountered, we had found ourselves back on the Moroccan motorway network, gaining speed on the smooth six-lane blacktop which slashed through the countryside ahead.
An hour later and we were pushing through rush-hour Rabat. So European and such a contrast from weeks past. There was no particular joy in returning to what in the UK we are conditioned to consider normality. I thought wistfully of the quieter roads and picturesque locations further south.
Finding a hotel that was reasonably priced and comfortable didn’t take long, but as Dave waited for me to check in, his front tyre promptly went flat.
“Not having the best few days are we.” I said. Dave groaned and said nothing. The hotel allowed us to use their underground garage, so in the warmth and light, we leisurely replaced the inner tube in Dave’s front wheel. The Ultraseal ‘Smurfs Blood’ had done a partial job in that Dave had avoided disaster on Rabat’s busy roads. There was a small rip in the inner tube, but air only came out slowly, blocked by the Ultraseal compound. Less pleasant was cleaning the mess of dripping Ultraseal out of the wheel and tyre, but on balance, I do feel that the green gunge had saved Dave from a more serious problem.
Rescheduling the ferry meant that we had actually gained an extra day. The original plan had been to ride straight to Ceuta and then onto Gibraltar the following day. But Dave now suggested visiting the Roman ruins at Volubilis near Meknes. We had both been there in 2000 and the road north from there made for a great ride.
Barbara had the deciding vote and opted to see Volubilis. “When am I next going to get the chance to see the place?” she asked. “Seems silly not to go.”
We left Rabat along the modern motorway to Meknes. A good, if bland road, livened up by the occasional pedestrian, or goat crossing the highway and the numerous hand held speed cameras of the Gendarmerie Royale.
Passing swiftly through Meknes, wincing at the incongruous sight of a drive-thru McDonalds right at the gates of the famous old Kasbah, we headed north on a single track road towards Moulay-Idriss. Once out of Meknes, the road traversed more rolling and green countryside, though vast fields of olives. The harvest was in full swing and we saw huge piles of olives outside several smallholdings, being sorted and made ready for market.
Moulay-Idriss is one the great Muslim spiritual cities. Lying half way up a steep escarpment of hills, the white buildings and steep passages curve around the folds of the hills and have as their focal point the huge mosque and market.
The white pillared square and market entrance proved to be a good place to stop for coffee. It was market day and the bustle of people and stallholders bellowing through hand held Bull-horns added to a very pleasant melee.
Volubilis was only five minutes ride from the town and we spent a few hours wandering the dramatic ruins. The site was originally settled in the third century BC and was one of the Roman Empire’s most remote outposts. The Romans left in the third century AD, but the city continued to be inhabited by various groups, including Berbers, Jews and Greeks until the 18th century, when it was plundered to build palaces in Moulay-Idriss.
Leaving the ancient site, we rode along more minor roads which allowed some great views and the chance to experience the quieter backwaters of northern Morocco.
Ahead of us rose the mighty Rif Mountains, famous for Berbers and drugs. As the road started to climb through some of the most spectacular scenery of the entire trip, the temperature plummeted.
The encroaching darkness meant that we settled on Chefchaouen for our last night in Africa. To get there we left the spectacular views of the mountain highway and headed further up into the mountains on a more minor, but very busy road. This took us across a high crest and as the land beyond opened out, we saw the breathtaking view of the small white city spread out before us; a haunting view in the last light of the day.
We checked shivering into the Hotel Rif. The owner spoke good English and directed us to a popular local restaurant. Our walk there took us through the old Medina and narrow alleys crowded with small stalls and shops selling pretty much anything that you could think of. Barbara finally bought a small bottle of Argan oil and Dave stocked up with spices.
The narrow passages opened into the main square, which surrounds the old Kasbah and mosque. The square was lined with several restaurants and the low light against a backdrop of medieval buildings and tall trees projected an almost Christmas-like air in a light mist of a cool winter’s evening.
The recommended restaurant proved to be a tall building with traditional Berber-modelled blue painted rooms at several levels and a roof-top area with spectacularly atmospheric views over the town. Braving the cold, this was where we ate, enjoying tagines, brochettes and fruit juice.
Our final day in Morocco started with a terrific ride through challenging Rif Mountain twisties on the road towards Tetouan. We only stopped briefly for photographs and coffee and were soon bypassing Tetouan, a town which sprawls grubby suburbs in all directions from the city centre itself.
Soon we were on the multi-roundabouted dual carriageway of the road to Ceuta and diving in and out of moderate traffic, we found ourselves part of a group of mixed large touring bikes with Spanish number plates.
All too soon, the ocean was running alongside the road and the promontory of Ceuta was standing out in the distance. We continued to follow the Spaniards as they entered the customs compound at Sebta/Ceuta and past the long line of traffic waiting to get through.
The usual mêlée of hustlers were ready for us, but we resolutely followed the Spanish riders who ignored the gesticulating crew of robed Moroccans and eased themselves up to the border gates. The guard waved the first bike through and the others followed without stopping, as did we, unconcerned for now that we’d not stopped for our Morocco exit stamps in our passports. Ah well, I’ll be happy to argue that one out when we return.
Spanish border controls took no interest in us and it seemed like seconds later we were spat out into the noise and confusion of the little enclave of Ceuta itself and back in EU territory.
Anticipation marked the ferry journey from Algeciras to Ceuta weeks before, sadness and reflection the return trip. So many things experienced, seen and felt. Much to think about as well. We sat on the stern of the fast ferry looking at the Rif disappear into the distance lost in our own thoughts.
But we still had Europe to cross. Arriving at Algeciras in the late afternoon light, we headed straight for Gibraltar, aiming to find a hotel before it got too dark.
An evening of English beer and food, marvelling at the oddities of Sterling in cashpoint machines and lager louts in bars, we set our minds to the relentless miles which awaited us on Spanish winter motorways.
Day one of the Spanish section saw us press on with a grim determination to get as far as we could in one hit. We left Gibraltar at first light, hammering down the Autoroute to Malaga, where Barbara was due to leave us to fly home.
Seeing Barbara going though was a wrench and not just for me. The three of us had made a great team in Africa and Dave also knew that he’d miss her bright company and sense of humour on the cold grinding miles ahead in Spain.
Reduced daylight hours and growing cold didn’t stop us from in putting hours at a time on the saddle, trying to maintain a steady 110 kph, while Jack Frost tried to find a way into our riding gear. We climbed the hills towards Granada as the temperature descended with the altitude and headed north to Juan, the motorway negotiating snow covered mountain peaks. Ever northward we rode, measuring stops by the number of times we needed fuel.
But by 5pm we’d had enough and checked into a very nice roadhouse just south of Madrid for some welcome hot food and shut-eye.
Frost blanketed everything as we departed the following morning. Madrid was frantic with traffic and like a plonker, I took a wrong turn, dumping us both in the city centre. Half an hour later we were free, but behind on time as we headed up the motorway to Burgos, climbing ever higher through the frost, clouds and into the Sierra De Guadarrama.
The 3,000 ft high pass at Puerto De Somosierra was bitterly cold, but it also marked a weather front and we broke through to brilliant sunshine the other side. The weather stayed bright until beyond Burgos, we once again found ourselves in freezing fog. By this time we were traversing the Pyrenees and soon started the long descent to Bilbao.
Our final night in mainland Europe saw us safely ensconced in a nice little hotel about 15km from the ferry port. This was an evening of celebration and reflection as we drank rather too much local wine and beer and devoured local dishes of pig trotters and ox tails.
After one major delay to the trip, the final indignity was a ferry with a broken engine, running six hours late. The crossing was uneventful, if a little choppy in the Bay of Biscay. Both of us were very tired and not looking forward to journey’s end. After all we had seen and done, it seemed more than a little odd to have to readjust to Christmas in northern Europe. Hordes of drunken, booze-cruising Brits didn’t do much for our general mood either.
In a similar way that he had seen us off, Steve Manning was waiting behind the lens of his video camera on the ferry ramp, making us feel welcome and marking the official end of the journey. A hour’s trip in the dark to Beckenham and a welcoming committee of Barbara and Ian Mutch were there to greet us help us unload the bikes and break open a bottle of champagne for a 2am toast to our collective achievement.
So we did it. All the planning worked, the support from our sponsors, in particular BMW and Metal Mule, had made it happen.
There are so many thoughts and impressions which arise from the journey. But we are both pleased that we had achieved the aims of the trip and extremely grateful to everyone who had helped to make it happen.
We have learned much from our time with Riders for Health which strengthens our links with them and I hope has helped to highlight their work. It also makes us realise the importance of the work that Simon Milward started on Indonesia – work which follows in the footsteps of Riders for Health successful and effective healthcare logistics programme.
Dave and I can’t avoid the imagery that arises from what some have already read as the completion of Simon’s Millennium ride. This is not a comfortable association for me as some may view this as impertinence and I am sure that Simon would have had many more adventures and made much more impact on the people that he met. But we did learn that he had been due to visit Riders for Health in the Gambia, so it seems highly likely that we took pretty much the African route north that he would have taken.
Our trip was inspired by Milward’s Millennium Ride and a personal commitment to continue his work through Motorcycle Outreach from Dave and myself among others. Our Bikes carried the Millennium Ride logo in addition to Motorcycle Outreach and Riders for Health. I hope that our own achievement, as small as it is, helps to keep the spirit of Simon’s ride alive and in the process highlights the extremely important work of Riders for Health in Africa and the equally important and similar work that is being done in Indonesia by Motorcycle Outreach.
Dave had to leave early on December 23rd for his flight back to Poland and later that morning I found a note that he’d written wishing us all a merry Christmas, adding ‘we finished the Millennium ride’. I hope that Simon is pleased.
Motorcycles kindly supplied and prepared by Vines BMW of Guildford.