It’s great to finally be in Banjul after a week of tough riding in places. Distances are vast and one can only really appreciate how big the Sahara Desert is by riding across it. Map’s don’t do justice to the huge emptiness and sheer beauty of the place.
Leaving Agadir, we almost overreached by trying to make Laayoune in one hit. The ride went well, but we arrived after dark, not the best time to be riding in the desert. During that day we started to see cars from the Amsterdam/Banjul challenge and met some great folks, part of a team of around 30 cars which are being driven to Banjul and auctioned. Britain has its own version, the Plymouth/Banjul Challenge.
The next two days saw the long road to Mauritania. The desert changes all the time, so always something new to see. It’s not empty either – people fishing from the cliffs, cars passing, even people cycling along the road! We also encountered a fair few traveling folk, mostly German groups or individuals. Bikes are not too common, we’ve only seen three or four. One German couple on an XT600 stopped for a chat and gave us information about road conditions further south.
The Mauritanian border was easily crossed, with the minimum of hassle and formality. The border guards and customs give an insight to what is one of the world’s top(bottom?) five poorest countries. The border authorities live in their huts and enter formalities in ruled exercise books. The items of most value seem to be the customs stamps and a carefuly cleaned rifle at the police post.
No man’s land between Western Sahara and Mauritania is mined and a 1km series of essentially off-piste tracks wind their way through between the customs posts. We followed a group of Germans who had been through before, to ensure we took the right tracks and the firmest path.
The short ride to Nouadhibou was along a part of the new road south to Nouackchott, a European class major new route which replaces the long overland and beach route of before. Arriving in town (dark again!) we found a decent enough hotel through the good offices of a tout who turned up in a battered Peugeot 205 at just about the right time.
Mauritania can best be described as crushingly poor. But the people are extremely friendly and have great dignity. Most are simply trying to scratch a living with what comes to hand. Cars are in the main battered and falling part resemblances of the model types that they once were and chug through the dusty streets quite slowly belching fumes. Working sets of lights are unusual and body panels often only mounted precariously. However accommodation is clean and the food well cooked and excellent.
We had a fair bit of trouble getting petrol for the trip south, finally finding the only one of over a dozen stations we tried which sold ‘essence’ — almost a very tricky moment! Jerry cans filled in addition to the bike fuel tanks we headed south down the new road – recently completed and through 450km of almost nothing, one or two towns, but no fuel and no food or water. This was the day that we experienced the first real heat and since then regular hydration stops and sheltering from the main heat of the day has been the norm.
There are two options for crossing into Senegal – the Rosso crossing, or the dam at Diama. Several traveler reports warned us about Rosso. Tales of theft, corruption, false guards, false police and extensive rip off abound. The Diama Dam route on the other hand is a quite sleepy place where a crossing can be achieved with the minimum of hassle and cost. The only issue being that Diama lies at the end of a 100km of variable, though mostly good piste.
Missing the turn off for Diama, we found ourselves at Rosso and immediately surrounded by swarms of touts, with the odd fake ‘official’ thrown in. The place comes across like the gates to hell, where the unsuspecting are marshaled into a customs compound, another victim for the baying hoards of touts One chap had an authentic looking police uniform, but looking him up and down, Dave said ‘so where’s your gun sonny?’ before we turned the bikes to head back to the piste road.
Arriving in Senegal, we took a welcome day’s rest at Zebrabar, a wonderful travelers resting place run by a Swiss couple and set in what can only be described as the film set from the movie ‘The Beach’. We were unable to make Banjul in one hit. It was too far and too hot. We stopped over in Koalack and leaving at first light headed for the Gambian border and onwards to Banjul. Big features of the last day of the outward trip was cautious plain clothes police on the Gambian side of the border who took our luggage apart and the ferry from Barra to Banjul which only goes when it becomes impossible to cram more vehicles and people aboard – a precarious 40 minute crossing of the Gambia river.
On Monday we start a two day stint with Riders for Health, who have been extremely helpful and welcoming. We had a small taste of this on the crossing from Barra – a Riders’ healthworker with his spotless bike took the crossing with us. Many people here know about Riders – even the cops we met at the border were aware of their work.
Distances are deceptive here. Early in the journey we would cover huge number of miles each day, but even though the roads are mainly quite good, the necessity (at least for me) to stop for the heat of the day has meant scaling down daily mileage ambitions.
So taking stock of the outward leg, just how easy is it to ride? Well, road conditions have been excellent. The new Atlantic road in Mauritania makes all the difference. Apart from 1km at the Mauri/West Sahara border, 5km of broken road nr Koalack and 10km of disgracefully potholed road in Gambia, it’s theoretically possible to ride just about anything from London to The Gambia. BMW remains the bike of choice for most though – and for very good reasons which anyone who does seriously long distances appreciates. However, if you want to avoid the Senegalese border at Rosso, you need to be prepared for the 100km of mostly very good piste to Diama Dam – this is where the GS Dakars come in.
Having said that, a ride to Africa isn’t just a simple matter of jumping on the bike and riding. Border formalities need to be prepared for. Senegal – and now The Gambia – require Carnet D’Passage, luggage needs to be chosen carefully and medical supplies obtained.
It’s also a long, long way and the sheer amount of riding involved can also become an issue on its own.
The BMW 650 GS Dakars have simply not been an issue on this trip. Daily mileages are eaten up at a reasonable rate of knots, we’ve encountered no problems whatsoever – these bikes simply punch above their weight in rideability, versatility on different roads and endurance. We’re pleased that we fitted the Scottoilers as well. They’ve been churning out the lubrication through all the heat and dust and we’ve yet to have a need to adjust the chains.
The Metal Mule luggage has also served us very well. Secure, spacious and just the job for desert travel, the side and top handles on each box making to easy to move them and enabling us to strap additional items on top of the boxes without losing the ability to carry them around. Anyhow, we’re here and it’s good to have arrived. We’re now having a weekend off and for once I think we deserve it!
More from us in about a week’s time.