Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle
On arriving in Burkina, we were nervous about the customs arrangements as we'd heard of previous travellers having their carnets refused and having to buy a local "laissez passer" instead. It seems likely that this insistence was not a scam so much as a lack of knowledge on the part of the customs officer however, as ours were merrily stamped in with no problem once we'd explained what he had to do. We certainly came away with the impression that perhaps the Burkinabe working week ran from Wednesday through to Sunday, as the Tuesday on which we'd arrived had a real weekend feel to it. Everywhere the staff manning the various roadblocks were simply lying in the shade, too lethargic to do anything other than look at us as we rode through waving. The civilians by contrast were very excited to see us - a man stood fixing a broken-down truck by the side of the road jumped up and down smiling and waving with both hands, and the gap-tooth grin sported by the old gent waving a sickle at us from the side of the road transformed even that into a friendly gesture.
On arrival in Bobo Dioulasso, we were faced with the usual african town confusion. A brief stop at a petrol station to consult the map and we were able to find our way to Casafrica, a french-run auberge with a reputation for good food and a reasonable camping rate of 1500CFA per night. Soon after setting up, we got a call from the others, who'd spent a day relaxing round the pool in Segou, and then headed down to Bobo to meet us. Before long there were a further three british motorcyclists filling the courtyard at Casafrica, and a round of beers was duly ordered.
Dan and Linz had heard of another french-connected establishment by the name of Le Zion - an auberge with glowing reviews in guidebooks and the tantalising prospect of mobylette rentals. This was too good an opportunity to miss, and on 21st November, we packed and made our way across town to rent classic french mopeds (as mobilise much of west africa) and explore some local swimming holes. The 'peds were duly rented, and after a false start when one machine ran out of fuel and the engine fell out of another, we set off for the holes. We got almost 2km towards the swimming holes when Ed's adopted machine stuttered to a halt at the side of the road. A quick look at what passed for an ignition system had us convinced we'd found the problem and we dispensed with the plug-cap and stripped back the ignition lead so it could be clamped to the spark plug.
With the stricken machine up on it's centre stand and Ed pedalling like a man possessed, the engine fired, but refused to run without pedal assistance. We were glad we'd brought a strap with which we could come to some towing arrangement, and after strapping Ed's bike to the back of another, we were even more glad that there were still four running machines to provide motive power as the resultant ten-wheeled-four-engined-two-hundred-cee-cee machine laughed it's way through town at an even slower pace, in an enormous cloud of blue smoke. We never made it to the swimming holes, but figured we'd more than got our money's worth in entertainment.
The plan for Thursday was different - a trip out to more local Burkinabe attractions, but this time on the proper bikes. South of Bobo is a place called Banfora, which has a lake with Hippos in it, and also some famous waterfalls nearby. We set off for Banfora, and after another hard hour and a half of riding in formation down a smooth tarmac road waving at the locals and listening to music (hard work this adventure travel) we arrived at the turning from which we had an easy piste to the lake. With the entry fee paid and an agreement reached with the staff inside for them to "guard" our five bikes for a further fifty pence, we swapped our wheeled transport for the floaty kind and paddled off to bother the hippos.
Safely back on dry land, we headed back to the campement a little way along the piste for some lunch, which arrived in a West-African minute (approx 90mins after ordering). This left us enough time to head off in search of the Cascades de Karfiguela, to pay another entry fee and another protection fee. There was a sugar processing plant part way along the piste to the falls, and the freshly harvested cane was clearly transported from the surrounding fields on the backs of bicycles or some-such as the piste was paved with treacle. It looked wet, but in fact was hard, shiny and smelled delicious.
From Bazoule to Ouagadougou was a very short day's ride, so we took the opportunity to have a relaxed start to Saturday 24th November, but still arrive in Ouaga in time for lunch. In the afternoon, Chris and Ed were despatched to liberate Chris' mechanical aid parcel from the DHL office, whose continentally characteristic level of efficiency proved to be a substantial barrier to that goal. The aircraft with Chris' rims on had broken down in Nigeria and a replacement was not available until Monday. This of course sentenced us to at least two more days in Ouaga, which was mixed news. We're not fans of African cities - noisy, dirty, busy places which are simply not what you come to the continent for. However, we were camped in the carpark of the OK Inn, (an establishment with aspirations of achieving outstanding mediocrity) which provided us with a pool, free wi-fi internet access when cheekily sat outside the foyer with the pocket PC and eventually a busload of Swedish tourists. The free camping was on the understanding that we would make use of their restaurant and bar as required, but with food at western prices and local So.B.Bra beers at three times the usual Burkinabe price, our usage of their facilities was doomed to be limited.
Chris and Ed had however been successful in finding an establishment to rebuild Chris' wheels when the parts became available. There's a dirt street in Ouaga where all the local bikes go to get repaired, sold or broken for spares. Nothing much like a CCM of course, very much more the Yamaha Townmate 80 end of the market, but the skills of wheel building are universal and the discovery of a workshop with a dozen or so wheelwrights sat on the floor lacing wheels for chinese scooters was the jackpot Chris and Ed were looking for. The price quoted was 2000CFA per wheel, (a shade over £2) for which you might just be able to get a single spoke threaded in the UK.
Sunday 25th November was spent getting the wheels out of Chris's stricken machine ready for replacement rims the following day, fitting new tyres to other-Dan's DR-Z, fitting other-Dan's old front tyre to Ed's bike and playing with an aerobie. We also took the time to visit an internet café to catch up with events, which proved tricky when the internet connection failed, for which the local cure was to switch all the PCs off and on again in the hope that this would surprise the circuitry into finding the internet again.
Monday 26th started with a lot of hassle. In order to pick up Chris' parcel from DHL, and then transport it, both his wheels and Chris himself to the workshop to have the wheels rebuilt, both Dan and Ed's Africa Twins were pressed into action. On the way to the DHL office Chris needed us to stop at a bank. This we did right by one of the many needlessly policed roundabouts, and within 40 seconds of leaving the bank, we'd been pulled over by the local constabulary's finest to accuse us of failing to respect the traffic lights. The officer demanded to see our insurance certificates which were duly produced, and then proceeded to explain that in order to get them back we'd have to pay a large fine in a vague location. Naturally given that our chances of finding the vague location were slim, we were left with the sole option of asking if it were possible to pay the fine there and then, which of course the officer was very happy to accept. Irritating though it was to line the pocket of a corrupt policeman, we didn't have the time to wait it out, or the french vocabulary to argue it out. Given that the fine being demanded was cheaper than a new insurance policy to replace the certificates being held to ransom, we paid our 12,000 CFA fine and left, irritated to have been stung in what was otherwise a very pleasant, easy-going country. We later found when chatting to a local man that the police in Ouaga commonly scam Burkinabe drivers, as well as a maintaining a regular earner picking on visiting toubabs.
On arrival at the DHL office we discovered that the premium service offered in the UK was not being delivered on the ground in Ouagadougou. Not only had the parcel arrived three days late, it was yet to be cleared by customs. You might assume that this was something that would be done by DHL staff before the paying customer arrives to collect his goods, but sadly this was not the case. Instead, the paying customers are left at the mercy of the Ouagadougou customs officers, who spring into action with all the characteristic african apathy to which we've become so accustomed. After sitting next to the parcel for an hour or so watching the one whose job it was to read the paper, we heard news that the customs inspector was coming straight over. Within a further half an hour, he'd made it over from the other side of the dusty carpark, along with the one whose job it was to open the parcel, and the one whose job it was to tape it back up again. Once this had been achieved, we thought we were home and dry, but again we were to be surprised. The paperwork still had to be stamped and signed by a further four people before the parcel would eventually be released into our care. Having arrived at nine, we were finally able to leave at noon, and strapped everything to the bikes to deliver it all to the workshop before hurrying back to base for a late lunch.
In the afternoon, Dan spent more time on the free wi-fi whilst Ed and Chris went back to the workshop to pick up the wheels. Whilst they were out, he received an email from Mikey Beckett who'd returned from his jaunt up to Tombouctou, made a mad dash across Burkina and arrived in Ouaga and was wondering where we were staying. By mid afternoon, the party was back up to six with Mikey's 1200GS parked in the dappled shade of the OK Inn car park and a tired, grubby Mikey silting up the hotel pool.
Good to their word, the hard-working Burkinabes had got the new rims laced to the old hubs by close of business, and a triumphant duo returned from collecting them in time to refit tyres and wheels to Chris' bike before dinner. This left the group with nothing to do but get drunk with the Swedes, and head to bed for the night.
On tuesday morning, a bleary eyed band of adventurers emerged from their tents and started packing up. The goal for the day was Gorom Gorom, a town in the north near the border with Niger, famous for it's Thursday market. Aware that the place would not be the same on a Tuesday but figuring it would be worth a visit anyway, even if only for the novelty of riding off the end of the Burkinabe tarmac back onto dirt roads, we set off. Or at least five of us did. Mikey was that bit too bleary eyed to ride a motorcycle, and stayed behind to recover.
On the way, we passed through Bani, famous for it's seven mud mosques, and paused briefly to take a couple of pictues before carrying on to Dori. The 30 mile piste from there to Gorom Gorom was well kept, broadly smooth and with only a few deep dusty patches to keep us on our toes. We arrived in Gorom without incident, only for the main street into the town centre to prove more of a challenge than any of the preceding piste. A deep trough of soft sand and a tired Dan resulted in a horizontal Honda though again no harm came to bike or rider. After a multitude of confusing directions, wrong turns and sand-induced close calls, we eventually rolled into the Campement Tondikara where we set up camp for the night. One of the staff there was able to lead us into town to a place we could eat and get a cold beer or two, and we ate couscous with a spicy vegetable sauce for just over a pound each, drinking ice cold So.B.Bra beers for just over 50p each.
On the way back to the trampement, we spotted an off licence kiosk and out of curiosity asked a few prices. A bottle of gin was yours for £3.00, and a litre of some bizarre liqueur consisting of whisky, alcohol and sugar was £2.50. A double shot of "Festa" whisky, hermetically sealed into a tartan-themed plastic pouch in one of Hong Kong's oldest traditional distilleries was too tempting to refuse at 10p a pop. With a satisfying bout of heart-burn suitably assured after a spicy meal and a double shot of what might as well have been super sans-plomb, the contented crew settled into their tents for the night and dreamt of Zantac.
With Gorom Gorom unable to offer anything other than chinese whisky to keep us entertained until market day, we valued our sight sufficiently to choose instead to leave the following morning and head to the border post at Seytenga, and thence to Tera in Niger. The piste back to Dori was covered in no time and riding high on a wave of optimism about the piste to the border we set off in search of it. Eventually we got directions from a local who explained that we should follow the piste signed to Sebba for 4km before turning off to the left. The GPS units confirmed that this was about right and we headed off down an international super-highway consisting of two sandy ruts with grass growing in the middle. This took us out into some beautiful unspoilt countryside, and although progress was slow due to a few soft patches requiring almost all the bikes to be picked up once or twice, we were able to stop for lunch in very peaceful surroundings and take it all in.
Along the way to the relatively large town of Seytenga, we passed numerous little villages of straw-thatched mud huts, the occupants of which clearly see very few westerners. Of the relatively few motorcyclists that make the trip down through West Africa to Capetown each year, not all pass through Burkina, and of those, not many would choose this remote route to Niger when there is good smooth tarmac to be had at the main crossing further south. It's no surprise then that out of all the people we met (and it seemed we met almost every resident of every village) only one man asked for a present. In the interests of keeping the rate of cadeaux-inflation low, he was rewarded simply with a loaf of bread left over from our breakfast in Gorom Gorom.
It struck us that remoteness is relative - here we were only 200km from the capital city of Niger, but there are people living simple subsistence lifestyles, literally days away from the modern healthcare they couldn't afford even if it were available to them. The poverty of the African communities we've seen has not been the lack of simple foods on which to survive that is commonly assumed by westerners to be rife, but instead a lack of availability of the relative luxuries of healthcare, or childrens clothing. It was clear to us that although geographically we were close to substantial centres, in the event of our having an accident and injuring ourselves or falling ill, it would take a long time to get to the facilities they provide.
One of the challenges along the way was a steep sided dry sandy river-bed at which we coincidentally arrived at the same time as a local on a Hadjin 125. These little chinese bikes (and those of many other chinese brands, many of which clearly share the same factories) would appear to be the ultimate travel bikes. The Sukidas, Lionmotos, Hongdus, Kewesekls, Loncins, Lifans and Skyjets are simple, universally repairable, probably reasonably reliable as they're almost all rip-offs of Honda's veritably bullet-proof CG125 and, by virtue of being light weight, clearly very capable. Where our fully-laden heavy bikes flounder in the soft stuff, the locals on their 125s ride through un-fussed, easier even than the 400s ridden by other-Dan, Linz and Chris.
Here in Seytenga, we were still an extreme novelty for all the same reasons as we had been in the tiny villages. As we were watched intently by a crowd of children and adults (the children occasionally being shooed out of the way so the adults could get a better look) we realised that actually, this was to be expected. When the aliens land outside the Churchill Square shopping centre, it'll take a while before the Brightonians get bored, figure they've seen enough and move on. They'll carry on watching long after the landing craft have been parked outside Dixons and the survival pods have been assembled in front of WHSmith, and in fairness, they will probably also hang around outside Prêt-a-Manger staring in through the windows as the aliens with the funny coloured skin experiment with buying and eating normal every-day food.Apparently however, the beaten track is coming to Seytenga - the police at the border post explained that a tarmac road project is being started in January 2008, and had this road already been completed, it would have taken away all the novelty we enjoyed. That of course is hardly a good reason to slow the wheels of progress, which should bring more tourists attracted by the convenience, provide an improved economy and better healthcare for the area, and open Seytenga up to more trade with the rest of Burkina Faso and neighbouring Niger.