Brighton2capetown - Niger

Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle

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Niger

19th December

As the 29th dawned in Seytenga, so too did the recollection that we were still a long day's slog away from the Nigerien border post in Tera.  Having been stamped out of Burkina Faso on our arrival in the town the previous afternoon, this was to be our first border crossing at which we'd have a whole day difference between the out and in stamps.  Of course, the locals enjoyed watching us preparing to leave, and we in turn had a little fun by putting Chris' helmet and goggles on one of the children to take a photo, which caused enormous amusement amongst the kids. 

Having had our fill of bread and jam for breakfast, and bought the only six bottles of water in the town we set off onto the piste.  This proved to be even sandier than the previous day's route, which precipitated lots of dropped bikes, but the surroundings continued to be pretty.  Progress was slow however, and as the piste deteriorated into a number of little used tracks of increasingly soft sand, the group all but ground to a halt.  As we paused for a drink in some shade, a local boy asked Chris for a lift to Tera.  To the boy, there were no rational reasons for refusal - in local terms Chris could hardly complain of being overloaded, the pillion seat already being occupied by weighty luggage would not be an issue for any local bike, the lack of footpegs or helmet for a passenger was hardly a consideration as they're a mere luxury anyway, and the piste was clearly easy enough for the locals.  And besides, a motorcycle as big and impressive as Chris' CCM 404 must surely be capable of at least a gerillion kilometres per hour, even two-up.  Chris however, was no local, and the boy was politely turned down and continued his long trudge to Tera on foot.  As it happened, he kept pace with us all day.  In fairness to us, there were two approaches possible, mindful of the remoteness of our location.  One could either gas it and attack the piste - resulting ultimately in fewer "moments" but more potential for injury from each moment, or slow right down and paddle the bike through the deeper sections of sand.  Some of the group, notably other-Dan with his motocross racing background, were generally in attack mode, others more in paddle mode with occasional skirmishes as confidence grew. 

This however was to be put to the test on a number of occasions, and the first notable damage done to one of our bikes was a metal mule pannier wrenched from it's mountings as Ed's bike went down at speed on a deep sandy corner.  The pannier looked rather second-hand, but after some light tweaking was found to still clip into place securely on the now righted bike.

We arrived in our first Nigerien village, only to find the Police post shut.  The chief was away for lunch, so it was not possible to stamp our passports into the country.  The officers manning the post instructed us to simply carry on to the main town of Tera, and have ourselves stamped in there. 

With progress slower than had been hoped, the sun very strong and the sweat just running off us as we continued to manhandle our bikes along the piste, Seytenga's supply of bottled water was running low.  With villages peppering the route however, we knew we'd be able to get water without too much difficulty.  Soon enough, we found a village with a brand new well (dug by a Nigerien islamic charity mere months beforehand) and we gratefully refilled our bottles.  To be on the safe side, we also dropped a chlorine tablet into each bottle, but we did so out of sight of the locals to avoid causing offence.  It's highly likely the chlorine treatment was entirely unnecessary, even for our delicate european compositions, but the peace of mind was well worth the tainted taste.

On our arrival in Tera, the police post demanded to know why we'd not been stamped into Niger already, but seemed satisfied with our pigeon-french explanation about policemen and lunchbreaks.  We were instructed to follow a truck to the main police station in the town, where we could have our passports stamped.  When the truck got to a deep sandy section it slowed right down, which of course resulted in other-Dan, Linz and Chris all dropping their bikes.  Ed and Dan on the other hand, had kept a bit further back and were able to maintain the luxury of an upright bike all the way. 

After spending half an hour reading and stamping our passports, the police were able to direct us to the customs post, where we were greeted by a fruitcake in a suit.  A portly middle aged gentleman who'd adopted the locally popular attire of a suit worn shirtless and with the jacket sleeves rolled up.  Flamboyantly saluting each of us and requesting both our passports and our carnets, the man compliemented Dan on his ample paunch and engaged us in conversation, furnishing us with such nuggets of information as the fact that in french, "miles" are called "kilomètres".  When the carnets came back inspected but unstamped, other-dan went back to the office to instruct a sane member of staff on the intricacies of their job.  The resident loon recommended us a campement which would be able to put us up for the night, and with no other information immediately available and a severe case of fatigue from the activities of the day, we agreed to give the place a try.  When the nutter then tried to mount the rear seat of other-Dan's DR-Z, he was politely informed that there really wasn't enough room back there because of the luggage.  Getting intimately acquainted with a six-foot 17-stone asylum outpatient was no more a feature of our itinerary than had been the over-keen auberge owner on our way to Nouadhibou.  Still keen to help, our enthusiastic fruit-loop demanded one of the junior staff of the customs office give him a lift on his bike instead. 

On arrival at the campement, he ably demonstrated that the mixture of fresh air and sand brought to his lungs by a ride through the streets of Tera on a motorcycle had done nothing to improve his sanity.  He entered the establishment with a forward roll through the gate into the sandy courtyard, then having failed to make it back to his feet as he might have done in his younger days, proceeded to kung-fu punch the air in the direction of the bar anyway, like an older, fatter, more seated Bruce Lee.  In his defence, he did then buy us a round of drinks, though perhaps we would have preferred to buy our own drinks and relax in our own company for the evening - this was clearly his local, and he was clearly off duty.  His tipple of choice was a large measure of some yellow petrochemical by-product with tonic.  If we thought his behaviour was odd when sober, it didn't improve any with drink.  He disappeared for a while, and we thought hopefully that we might escape his company for the rest of the evening.  While he was gone, we noticed that his drink had more than tonic in it.  It had also accrued a bottle cap, a cigarette end and a dead insect.  He returned within half an hour clutching a brown paper bundle of street food - some local kebab-esque concoction which, in between swigs from his unusually garnished drink, he proceeded to offer around in what was clearly a characteristically generous manner.  When a large chunk of bone landed on the table in front of Chris, freshly spat out by our deranged douanière, we knew his table manners were in need of some work however.  So when our food arrived it almost didn't surprise us that he rose to his feet, walked round, leant over the table and ploughed his fingers deep into Linz's plate of couscous and sauce, and helped himself to a handful.  Linz pretty much lost her appetite at that point, despite having worked hard all day on the piste.

A friend of our mentalist came to join us at our table, and when he found out we were on bikes, was keen to see our machines and then show us his own.  His Kewesekl CG125 proudly sported the moniker "Japan Tech" across the dials.  Which was fair enough, in a chinese kind of way - the technology was mostly 1970s japanese.  One way or another, the proud owner was convinced he'd bought himself a high quality japanese bike, and that satisfaction of ownership was all that mattered for the moment.  He showed us round some of the more advanced features - the indicators were accompanied by a computerised voice from somewhere under the seat stating that he intended to turn to the left or right, in grammatically correct if woefully distorted french.  This delighted the owner in much the same way as a child might be impressed by similar functionality installed on a push bike.  The key fob sported a remote crank button, so as the owner approached the bike he could turn the engine over on the starter.  As demonstrated however, he couldn't actually start it from a distance as he couldn't then reach the throttle grip to give it the blip required to get it to catch...

The following morning we counted the cost of the previous day's activities.  Both Linz and Ed had flat front tyres courtesy of some of the enormous number of thorns that had been picked up by all five front wheels, and the bill for the camping arrived with an astonishingly large number at the bottom.  We were being charged over £5 each for camping in a carpark in a backwater town in northern Niger where the showers didn't work because the pump was broken and the toilets were long drops.  This compared badly with the free camping with pool and wi-fi in the capital city of Burkina.  The simple meal we'd eaten the night before was being charged at £2.50 each for much the same as we'd eaten for 20p each 50km away in Seytenga, and they wanted a total of over £6 for a simple bread and jam breakfast which had cost mere pence everywhere else it was available.  We were angry because we were being taken for a ride, but mostly because we realised it was partly our own fault for getting sloppy and failing to agree prices before committing.  We argued the price down by 20% and left, still angry, and hoping that no overlanders ever give them any more custom - not a great start to our stay in Niger. 

The plan for the day was a short day to the capital, Niamey, to take a rest to recharge our batteries after the battering we'd taken on the piste from Dori to Tera.  The map said it was tarmac all the way, so we weren't fussed when we stopped for a drink and noticed that both Ed and Linz's puncture repairs had failed and allowed the tyres to go soft again.  Both repairs were re-worked and we were back on our way.  After a quick ferry ride across the river, we were back on reasonable tarmac again and so it continued until, 20 km from our goal, the diversion signs were out.  We were diverted onto a dirt road running parallel to the river, and taking us through a few small settlements, or perhaps suburbs on the approach to the capital.  We were disappointed to note that even on rough dirt tracks with water crossings on which it is impossible to maintain any speed, the Nigeriens have fully embraced the concept of the speed-bump, one of which was sufficiently violent to dislodge Chris' camcorder battery from its mount, forcing him to retrace his steps to go and find it.

We found ourselves at the back of the group though no more than a minute behind the other three, and as we approached a little concrete bridge over a dry river bed, it was obvious that some of our party had just been involved in an accident.  Both Chris and Linz's bikes were on their sides - perhaps they'd somehow collided and were both injured as both bikes had been left dripping fuel out of their tanks - but at first glance there was no sign of either rider.  There was a large crowd at the side of the road, and through it, it was just possible to make out the rear wheel of another DR-Z jutting up out of an enormous hole in the bridge.  Linz was shouting that other-Dan's arm was broken, and as all our worst nightmares played out in our minds, we did our best to get on with dealing with the situation as best we could.  We parked our bikes obstructing the traffic to ensure passing vehicles slowed down, and picked up Chris and Linz's bikes from where they'd been dropped so the fire risk from the spilt fuel and chain-smoking locals would be minimised. 

Having done our best to improve the safety of the scene, we then attended to Dan as best we could - all we had was ibuprofen, but it seemed that might help reduce swelling and the pain associated with travelling in the back of a car along a rough dirt road with a broken arm.  With other-Dan and Linz packed off together in a flagged down car to get to hospital, Dan, Ed and Chris were left with an enormous crowd of locals all milling around the four upright bikes, and the DR-Z upside down in a hole.   We moved all the other bikes and the various abandoned belongings off the road to tidy up the scene somewhat, and set about extracting the fallen Suzuki.  It had done just over a quarter of a forward roll, and was stuck with it's handlebars taking the weight, the front wheel wedged under the edge of the broken concrete slab, and the rear wheel just forward of vertically upwards.  To make the bike easier to extricate, we started by removing all the luggage, which is tricky enough with an unfamiliar set-up on someone elses' bike, never mind when it's stood on it's front end through a hole in the road which has other ominous cracks spread through the section on which you're stood.   With the luggage removed, we thought that with straps attached to the underside of the bike, it might be possible to pull it out the way it went in.   With the luggage straps from the two Africa Twins tied from the DR-Z's underside to the front of a flagged down four-wheel-drive, attempt one commenced.   As the strain was taken up by the straps, the bike lost its grip on the concrete and slipped further into the hole -  that approach was not going to work.   At this point, the locals took over.   In the same way as a large enough team of ants can carry an entire Pringle towards their hole (we know, we watched them during a lunch stop in Senegal) so a large enough team of interested passers-by can lift an upside-down trail bike out of a hole in the ground and deposit it, the right way up on firm ground.  

That left us with just the more every-day challenges left to tackle: the light was rapidly failing, we had nowhere to stay the night, we didn't have a lot of water and hadn't stocked up with food.   An elderly local who spoke a bit of english told us we were welcome to stay at his for the night, which was literally a hundred metres back down the road in the direction we'd come from.  We politely declined the offer of a room in a hut and explained we had tents if it were ok to pitch them in the schoolyard.  Our hosts allowed us to squeeze all five bikes into their little compound for security so they couldn't be seen from the road, and having done so we erected our tents just outside in front of the school and made a phone call to Linz to check that everything was OK at the hospital.  With good news from the front coming as quite a relief, we hastily cobbled together a meal of pasta with a dry packet vegetable soup as a sauce, we were all set for a good night's sleep.  It was after we'd cooked, eaten, washed up, cleaned our teeth and were just getting into our tents for the night that the elderly gentleman appeared with two big pots of food!  We felt very guilty explaining that we'd already eaten and thanked him profusely anyway.  After the events of the afternoon, his generosity was particularly touching. 

On the first of December, we had a plan.  We would check that other-Dan's DR-Z was as miraculously mobile as it looked, ride each of our own three bikes to the campsite in Niamey we'd been heading for the previous day and get set up.  Then we'd meet up with Linz, pillion her and Chris back to the bikes at the old man's house and so the bikes could be brought to the campsite.  This we explained to our host who was quite happy for us to leave the two bikes in the compound until the afternoon - and we knew they'd be quite safe. 

We set off for Niamey and found we were very nearly already there.  It was less than 10 km from the scene of other-Dan's crash to Camping Touristique in Niamey and after a slight access issue on account of it being on the road that was closed (the one we'd been diverted off the previous afternoon) it became apparent that the locals simply rode their bikes over the mounds of earth that had been placed on the road to block it off and made their way on up through the road works.  When in Niamey, you do as the Niamians do.  On first appearance, the place looked quite appealing.  It had sandy pitches, a bar and restaurant and little thatched sun-shades with tables and chairs underneath for us to sit on.  We got set up, bought some bread, and ate breakfast in the shade.  When Linz arrived we rustled up some lunch and were just finishing it off when it started to become apparent that the Camping Touristique was rather misleadingly named.  Apparently the sunshade by which we were camped and under which we were sat had been booked by a group of wealthy looking locals who'd arrived in a selection of flash motors to enjoy a saturday afternoon of drinking.  The Camping Touristique was basically a bar and restaurant complex for the locals which tolerated camping tourists.  The fact that the place had no security and was full of locals wandering around did nothing to inspire confidence in the safety of our belongings, but we had things to do.  We headed off on the bikes as planned to collect the two Suzukis from the compound at the old man's place, and took a couple of cakes bought in town for the old man and his family by way of thanks for their help and hospitality. 

In the evening, we were able to visit other-Dan in hospital and laugh at the comically camp cast the medics had applied.  He was in very good spirits, and he and Linz were working out how they'd be able to continue their trip once his arm was healed, travel insurance permitting.  When we returned to the campsite, we found that the music was playing loud, the now-drunk locals were still drinking and chatting loudly under the little sun-shade next to our tents, and a good night's sleep was going to be hard to come by.

The following day we still had tasks to do - our bikes needed an oil change, we needed to install Linz in a hotel and get other-Dan's bike and luggage to it as well, get a decent repair done to Ed's front inner tube (the patch hastily applied in Tera had failed on the morning of other-Dan's accident) and we also needed to do some washing.  An update for this site and a check of emails was going to have to wait until the next convenient city.  By the time we'd found a hotel with a vacancy for Linz, we'd managed to get Ed's tube repaired and buy a plastic bowl from a street stall to do our washing in (the Camping Touristique being the first place we'd stayed where there weren't decent wash basins where we'd expect them) and Chris gave Ed a free pass to the no-hair club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It felt very odd delivering Linz to a hotel and leaving her there - much the same as leaving a child at boarding school we'd imagine.  We couldn't hang around and help her get settled in however, so we left her and a metric ton of luggage in the capable hands of the hotel porters and returned to Camping Touristique to do our oil changes while the daylight lasted.  The service in the campsite restaurant that night was so characteristically relaxed as to waste an hour and make it impractical to visit other-Dan, so that was added to the itinerary for the following morning, when we'd be leaving Niamey and heading towards the border with Nigeria at Maradi.

So it was that on 3rd December, three grubby overlanders returned to the Hotel Gaweye in Niamey to pick up Linz and take her to the clinic to see other-Dan.  Dan's bike looked more like a police bike than ever, as the only practical way to carry our newly acquired blue-with-yellow-stripes washing bowl was to fasten it upside down to the rear pack, adding to the enormous white bike the illusion of a blue flashing beacon.   It was great to see other-Dan and Linz both still in good spirits, and of course we were sad to leave them both behind as headed off to towards Dogon Doutchi, our stop for the night.  Not only did we miss their company, but the accident had put us all a little on edge, which of course came at a bad time with us heading towards Nigeria, a place about which we had all been a little nervous anyway.

The road to Doutchi was mostly good tarmac with the odd dusty diversion thrown in for good measure but we made good time and arrived with plenty of time to help Chris fix his bike again.  One of his front fork legs had been leaking oil almost since he left the UK, and he had finally noticed a dramatic change in the handling of the bike as the suspension finally stopped working as it should.  With no hope of finding the 5-weight fork oil specified in his CCM manual, we located the thinnest engine oil we could find, and used that instead.  With Chris' CCM leant against a tree with the front wheel out again, Dan and Ed played the part of White Power suspension technicians, and the three of us gave Chris' fork a servicing worthy of a factory team.  Sort of.  Chris seemed happy with the result, anyway.

The accomodation at Hotel Magama had ended up being quite a bargain.  We'd arrived and asked if we could camp, which was agreed at 2500CFA for the night, which seemed fair as a room would have been 10,000.  Once our tents were up, however, our man came back and said that maybe we'd not be safe from interfering locals there, and perhaps we'd like to take rooms for the same price we'd agreed for camping.  This we agreed as it meant we got a shower each, and even the tattiest of rooms equipped with a fan for £2.50 a night is a bargain in most parts of the world.  It was frustrating then that our dealings with the restaurant part of the establishment were not so transparent.  We'd agreed that a plate of pasta with sauce would be 1500 CFA, he'd commented that he only had chicken, so the two with meat would have chicken.  We agreed that would be ok, and enjoyed the meal.  When the bill arrived, he'd subtracted 300 from each plate of pasta for no "meat" and added two lots of 3000 for the two portions of chicken.  We were understandably disappointed with this and argued the price back to the 4500 we'd expected to pay.  It was frustrating to find that the guy was trying to take us for a ride even though we'd done our best to agree everything in advance, but it's a fact of being a touring european in this part of the world that we've had to get used to, that the locals will tend to see you as a cash cow.

Tuesday 4th December saw us up and on the road early as we didn't have tents to pack up.  The road to Maradi was variable, with dirt sections on the tarmac road, but pretty much the only stops we needed all day were fuel and lunch breaks.  Our normal choice of fresh baguettes with cheese spread for freakatarian-Dan and corned beef for the normal people ("La Vache Qui Rit" and "La Vache Qui ne Rit Plus", if you like) eaten at the side of the road sufficed perfectly and allowed us to get back on our way with minimal hassle as usual.

Whilst stopped at the side of the road, you can't help but notice that the vehicles in Niger have all been accessorised in a very particular way.  Each one has had additional noises painstakingly added by the legions of previous owners by whom it has been cherished since it left the factory: each rattle, clank, screech and whine having been the product of years of meticulous neglect.

Accomodation in Maradi was looking problematic however - the desirable option of a smart hotel favoured by overlanders for it's secure parking and nice restaurant priced itself out of reach of our remaining CFA, and another place refused to even entertain the idea of us camping outside.  We ended up camped outside the budget Hotel Larewa, which was pleasant enough, and gave us the use of one of the rooms so we had a bathroom.  They cooked us a good meal and stuck to the agreed price, and thereby restored our faith in Niger just before we left.

As Wednesday 5th December dawned, we had mixed feelings about the day.  On one hand, the backward step we'd all felt on arriving in Niger - the return to the sandy influence of the Sahara - was about to be reversed as we started to head south again.  On the other hand, our destination was a place about which horror stories abound, and about which there is a lot of confusion and misinformation.  With nothing for it but to get on with it however, we headed for the border post to see what Nigeria was really like for ourselves.