After five days of riding deeper into the tropics and four border crossings, the GlobeBusters / Motorcycle Outreach research expedition has reached Cap Skirring on the border of Guinea Bissau and the Casamance area of Senegal.
Leaving Kayes in Mali on February 6th, husband and wife team, Craig Carey-Clinch and Barbara Alam travelled west through Senegal, crossing into The Gambia, before heading south through the Casamance and on into tropical Guinea Bissau.
The expedition arrived at its most southerly point, the city of Bissau on February 9th.
“The roads south have taken us through increasingly lush vegetation of striking beauty, a real contrast to the desert and often arid Sahel country further north. Roads have been mostly good, particularly in the Casamance and in Bissau, though the stretch between Tambacoudra and Kaolack in Senegal contained an 80 mile stretch of broken tarmac which is very poor. But this made for interesting and challenging riding as we negotiated pot holes and found our way past the numerous heavy trucks, encouraged by the stoic and ever smiling and waving Senegalese lorry drivers.”
Tambacounda to Kaolack road
Equipped with essential engine protection from Touratech, the BMW R1200GS once again proved its credentials on roads ranging from smooth tarmac to deep potholes and rough piste.
Guinea Bissau proved to be a highlight of the expedition. The former Portuguese colony is struggling to recover from a disastrous civil war which ended only in 2000, but was followed by a series of bloody coups. However, the warring factions settled their differences some years ago and after free and fair elections in 2005, Guinea Bissau has a new optimism which is being expressed with new infrastructure developments, including new roads and a real willingness to work towards a peaceful future.
Craig Carey-Clinch commented: “The people of Guinea Bissau are among the friendliest that we have met on the whole expedition. The city of Bissau is very interesting, with new developments and businesses springing up and mingling with fine old Portuguese town houses and the occasional grim remains of partially destroyed public buildings, left as they are, as a reminder of the horrors of war.
Tomorrow, the couple start the final leg of their journey, working their way northwards to arrive in Dakar, before departing for the UK in the early hours of the 17th.
The ride from Kayes in Mali to Tambacoudra, Senegal, was an easy and enjoyable short day of riding on good roads. The border was once again relaxed, easy and involved no cost. We rode through forests of huge baobab trees and mixed country raging from hilly to the flat open plains of the Ferlo. The wildlife is amazing. We spotted more monkeys and strange small creatures which look like squirrels, but have a turn of speed when scuttling across the road which would put Roadrunner to shame. The birdlife varies from small red Fire Finches to metre tall black, ground dwelling crows, eagles and flocks of vultures.
Even the best roads have to be treated with caution. Numerous goats have no regard for traffic, herds of cattle amble out onto the road ahead and piglets dart and weave among the traffic.
Arriving in Tambacoudra, we checked out the national park options. We hope that the GlobeBusters expedition in December can visit the Niokolo Koba, about the only place in West Africa where the explorer can view large mammals and big game. Unfortunately, motorcycles are not allowed into the area, but Tambacoudra seems to be the centre for visits to the Park and we found that organising one or two day excursions from the various hotels, or from the Parks Office in town is incredibly easy and good value for money. The December expedition can also tie up with the Hotel Simenti in the heart of the park, if a night among the lions and giraffes takes people’s fancy, while bikes can be secured in one of the guarded compounds in Tamba for the night.
Leaving Tamba, we immediately found ourselves riding the most incredible piece of ‘road’. For about 80 miles, the route can be best described as a loose collection of bits of tarmac, sometimes vaguely joined to each other to form something that may have once been recognisable as a road.
We bumped along in low gears, jostling with the heavy lorries, battered ‘Touba’ community buses and the other traffic on this very busy highway. But strangely, we soon found that a certain camaraderie exists on this trying stretch. Nothing moves very fast, so people seem more willing to wave, yell greetings and be friendly as we inched our way by. All the traffic was courteous allowing us space to pass. There are numerous breakdowns littering the highway and lorry crews sit patiently on mats underneath their broken leviathans, brewing tea and waiting.
We’ve decided that Senegalese truck drivers are among the best and hardest working people that we have met. Day after day, they haul their decades old articulated lorries along that dreadful piece of road, crashing and rattling though the deep potholes and dust on their worn out running gear, coping with breakdowns, wheels falling off and suspension collapses, sometimes stranded by the side of the road, or even across the road, for days, waiting for spare parts so that their ancient trucks can once again roar defiance at the road through open, unsilenced, exhaust pipes and clouds of belching diesel fumes.
Every time we stopped for some water and a cool-off, several would clatter and rattle to a stop to check if we were OK.
It really was an amazing experience and our BMW R1200 GS shrugged the whole thing off as just another day. The Touratech engine bash plates really came into their own and given the number of times, the bike heavily bottomed out in deep holes, I’m sure that they saved the engine cases from possibly serious damage and yet, the bash plates themselves still look as good as new.
Thankfully, the road gradually improved, so long before we arrived in Kaolack, we were running on smooth tarmac, with only the occasional large pothole to keep us on our toes.
That evening we dined at Chez Annouar, a colonial style cafe which is run by an elderly French couple who stayed behind when the French administration left several decades ago. The place is a particular favourite of Dave French and myself.
The following day we rode down to Banjul in The Gambia. A pleasant 100km ride, which took in more Baobab country and led us through lovely villages of traditional round mud huts. This seems to be a more prosperous part of the country, with village thoroughfares lined with cleaner shops, offering more products than we had been used to further east.
The first 20 miles of roads is piste and potholes, but much easier to ride and we cruised at a steady 30-40mph along most of it. After that, a brand new road leads to the border.
Crossing into English speaking Gambia was straightforward, though the Gambian plain clothes police insisted on searching our luggage. This happened when we visited in 2005, so we were expecting it and the experience was more amusing than anything else, as we explained how things like satellite phones worked to policemen who never usually see such things.
The road from the border to the Gambia River ferry at Barra used to be another stretch of potholed rubbish, but road crews are now hard at work laying an entirely new road. It hasn’t been tarmaced yet, but the temporary piste ‘underlay’ for the forthcoming tar was quite good and allowed normal road speed riding. The job will be finished by the summer.
Taking the ferry was very straightforward. Tickets are bought a mile or so out of town and we managed to ride straight onto the boat, arriving in Banjul in good time to sort out our Guinea Bissau visas and check out various hotel options before deciding that the Africa Village hotel on the coast offered good value for expedition groups. We drank our ‘sundowner’ beer, looking out over the ocean and exciting the imaginations of British package holiday tourists who couldn’t believe that we had come overland from Europe.
The Gambia is one of the main areas of operation for Riders for Health (www.riders.org) RFH’s work in Africa was the inspiration for Motorcycle Outreach’s project in Flores, Indonesia (www.motorcycleoutreach.org) , which was established by Simon Milward in 2002. Our manager in Flores, Willy Balawala, was trained at the RFH centre in Zimbabwe and both Barry and Andrea Coleman from RFH gave Simon a lot of inspiration and support, plus a guiding hand from time to time. Motorcycle Outreach is particularly indebted to RFH for their continued advice and support for what may seem on the face of it to be a rival charity to RFH – though we do operate in different part of the world to each other.
Unusually, in a world where charities compete, sometimes aggressively, with each other, Motorcycle Outreach asks for people to not forget Riders for Heath if making charitable donations to Motorcycle Outreach. Their work is hugely important in Africa and has made a difference to the lives of many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people on the African continent.
I am hoping that the GlobeBusters expedition will be able to visit the Riders for Health in The Gambia, to see how Transport Resource Management (TRM) for rural healthcare by motorcycle is done.
Riding through The Gambia the following day, we were both struck by how much the country has developed, at least alongside the main highway, since we last visited. Lots of new buildings are springing up and business, at least for some, is flourishing. Go further inland though and the grinding poverty of life for many is still starkly apparent. Large sections of the population in West Africa still subsist on less than two dollars a day and for many, education will not lead to work. This means that a lot of young people never bother finishing school, instead, choosing to make an early start on a career of occasional odd jobs or menial labour.
We met the exception on the Gambia River ferry, a group of bright young fifth and sixth form students, who were studying hard to become doctors and other professionals. The education of some of them was being paid for by hard earned contributions from members of their extended families, who were collectively investing their small individual savings in the future of their young relative.
One girl was studying trade associations. This gave an opportunity to talk about the Motor Cycle Industry Association and to provide a ready made case study for her to use!
We crossed once again into Senegal and rode on excellent roads through the contested Casamance region, an area marred by a separatist rebellion in the 1990s and early 2000s, but regarded as generally safe for foreign travellers provided the main roads are used and travel is restricted to daylight hours. Security is tight and we passed numerous groups of troops, who were set up under groups of trees, or patrolling in groups of two or three. All waved us onwards with a smile. As did the occasional customs checkpoints, who after checking that our Carnet was in order, seemed more interested in trying to buy our bike than anything else.
Once again, this was an area of outstanding natural beauty and friendly locals. Set in a topical zone, the Casamance is the jewel in the Senegalese crown and it’s a shame that people are put off visiting by its troubled past, though the number of visitors is slowly increasing.
The crossing into Guinea Bissau was very straightforward and it took only minutes. Again; no ‘fees’ or hassle. We found ourselves riding into an area of dense tropical vegetation along an excellent road, but with virtually no traffic. Just the occasional cyclist, who smiled and waved, or looked dumbstruck by these two wheeled creatures from another planet.
Guinea Bissau is definitely off the tourist trail and gets very few European visitors. A terrible recent history has left a country reeling in poverty and struggling to start again.
This is a peaceful place which needs foreign visitors. The people are outstandingly friendly, despite their circumstances (villages are impoverished and basic services like electricity are rare) and the countryside is heartbreakingly beautiful.
European money means that the roads are being improved and bridges are replacing the battered old ferries which still run in some areas. Roads means that infrastructure, trade and healthcare services can reach people and provide a link to the outside world.
All we ever hear from the climate change lobby and environmentalists in the UK is how bad new roads are. They may have a point about ever growing road traffic in the UK, but in Africa, roads often mean life and I find it particularly despicable that some sections of the ‘developed world’ environmental lobby are arguing that to help ‘avoid’ climate change, Africa should not develop beyond a certain point. Try telling that to Senegalese truck drivers!
We had an easy run on quiet roads down to Bissau city, only delayed by arriving at a ferry crossing when the crew were having their afternoon break. This allowed time for a colourful collection of people and vehicles to gather and trade food and drinks. The BMW excited a lot of interest and although we don’t speak Portuguese, we enjoyed communicating with them and demonstrating aspects of the bike to our awestruck audience.
The city of Bissau is starting to develop again and the main road into town was a mixture of modern buildings, new gas stations, shops and extensive building sites. Colourful street markets lined the routes and traffic became denser.
The old city centre is a quiet place, with streets full of former colonial buildings, with these rubbing noses with new developments and 1960s and 70s administrative buildings which are either newly repaired or still badly damaged by civil war shell-fire. The former Presidential Palace is particularly striking. Left as a memorial to the civil war, the grand colonial facade is marred by shell and bullet holes, with a roof which is partially caved in. It sits on a square lined with grand almost Soviet style buildings, all damaged to various degrees and extensively marked with huge green and brown streaks which comes from the massive humidity of the rainy season of late summer.
We found an excellent place for the GlobeBusters expedition to stay, the Hotel Kalliste, set in a newly refurbished Portuguese building featuring reasonable prices in a surprisingly expensive city by African standards. The hotel also features a lovely pavement cafe/restaurant, where in the evening Bissau’s burgeoning professional classes come to eat, drink and socialise.
Bissau people were genuinely interested in what we were doing there and many mentioned the real need for tourism and were grateful that GlobeBusters is considering taking a motorcycle expedition there. I expect that the welcome for the group of riders will be very warm indeed.
Yesterday morning, we bade a somewhat regretful farewell to Bissau and once again travelled the very good road to the border. Riding in the cool of the morning meant more road traffic and police checkpoints. All were straightforward and friendly and we were able to once again enjoy the tropical palms, birdlife and estuarial Mangrove beds as we travelled.
Crossing back into Senegal was again very easy, though this time, a police checkpoint, just down from the border searched our luggage. The cop, with mock seriousness, made strenuous efforts to get me to sell the GS.
We arrived at Cap Skirring on the Casamance coast yesterday afternoon and are currently staying at one of those beach-side places which earns its existence from the outstanding equatorial coast line. The border with Bissau is only about a mile from here and this morning, a local character told us that in years gone by, entry to Bissau was gained by wearing a dramatic and colourful face mask – an example of which, he then of course proceeded to try and sell to us!
Tomorrow, we leave for The Gambia again, heading north to Dakar, where we expect to arrive in good time to sort out the shipping for the bike and to get ready for our flight home. We’ll try and send a final update before we leave for the UK
Our best wishes to you all.
Craig & Barbara, on the road.