Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle
We have to mention that the intercom units tucked away in the tankbags of the two bikes have been awesome. Bike to bike is a godsend for navigation, letting your mate know you want to stop for a photo and discussing international driving standards. Not to be underestimated however is the other main functionality of the units - pumping music through our earplugs as we ride. There's something almost surreal about finding yourself cruising the Western Saharan highway listening to the chilled tunes of Beth Orton, crossing Mauritania listening to some old school Faithless or having the Red Hot Chili Peppers accompany your ride through the bustling streets of St Louis.
The plan for the following day was to ride back out through St Louis and take in more of the sights of the place by day - a colourful bustling city with street stalls selling everything from clothing to goats. We needed to call into a bank with an ATM, get some CFA and fuel up as all three bikes were due a refill. After that, the plan was to take the short ride to the legendary Zebrabar.
On our way out of town at about 11.30am, we were of course stopped again by the local constabulary's finest. Having been ushered to the side of the road, Dan in the lead, the officer proceeded to collect our driving licences, then explain to Dan that as we hadn't indicated as he'd flagged us down to pull in, we had to pay a fine of 10,000CFA (approx £10), or €30 (over £20). Dan asked in french for clarification of whether that was for all three riders, or per rider. Back came the confusing response that it wasn't for all three, as it was 7500CFA each, which, according to his flaky arithmetic would be 21,500CFA total. He was thus offering us a generous bulk discount, a deal too good to refuse. We refused it, maintaining (in english at all times) that we didn't understand, we'd done nothing wrong, the senegalese vehicles generally don't have indicators at all, and no senegalese citizen could afford to pay 10,000CFA every time they left the city. We were asked, in english, to move the bikes out of the way, which we also didn't understand. We went and sat in the shade.
After half an hour or so, he approached us to ask us to move the bikes again, which we still didn't understand. He also tried to present us with a piece of paper, pre-stamped for his convenience, detailing the offence, an amalgamation of our names (Mr Adams Edward Bone) and the fine, explaining that if we refused to pay now, we would have to return to town tonight, and pay at the police station in the morning to get our driving licences back. We refused the piece of paper on grounds we didn't understand, and retired to the shade with a packet of chocolate biscuits.
Earlier that morning, we'd noticed a problem with Chris' rear tyre and this seemed as good a time as any to make good. We set about removing the rear wheel from his CCM, at the police checkpoint, in full view of our new friend. When Dan got dust in his eye, the policeman was suddenly quite helpful, offering some water to assist. He also helped with the reinstallation of the tyre on the rim, and after we'd struggled to get the wheel back in (a process involving two of us holding the back of the laden bike in the air while the other slotted the wheel into place) the policeman finally got bored of looking at us, realised we weren't going to give him any money, realised there wasn't any point in stopping any other westerners while we were there to talk to them about what he was doing, and finally gave us our licenses back. We'd only had to wait five hours.
From the police checkpoint to the Zebrabar was only 16 km, and the signs led the way clearly and without problem. On arrival, we were greeted by very friendly staff, a cold beer each and beautiful views from the top of the tower. After chilling for a while, we set up our tents near some enormous spiders which had webs spanning between two trees and got ready for dinner with the other guests and the owners.
We spent Thursday 1st November relaxing around the Zebrabar, writing up some of the content for this website soaking up our surroundings and generally chilling. The work life balance seems about right when you're sat at a desk with a view of palm trees and a monster bottle of beer that dwarfs the computer you're typing into. We were camped on the sandy floor between the trees, metres from the water's edge. With the children playing excitedly and a myriad of different animals: an army of dogs, several generations of cats, large scuttling crabs and even a tiny donkey (shown below being held by Chris) - the place gives off a welcoming and inclusive feel. The easy pace of life testimony to the popularity of the campsite amongst the overlanding community.
Sad to be moving on so soon but optimistically looking forward towards the Gambia we packed the bikes and went to leave only for the surprisingly deep sand to claim a victim in the form of Dan's defenseless steed which, with each lunge to free itself, only sank deeper into the ground's sandy embrace. With mirthful expressions in evidence, Ed and Chris stepped forward to help and with panniers removed the old girl was freed and we were once again on our way.
No preparation for an overland trip in Africa would have been complete without due consideration of punctures. Spare inner tubes and a stack of rubber patches and glue are a must. With the comments of "expect tonnes of punctures" ringing in our ears from fellow travellers met in person or online we had set off from the UK confident we possessed the tools to do the job. Apart from the piste to Ouadane that claimed Dan's front tyre and with it the first puncture of the trip we seemed to be doing well versus the odds. So it seemed especially ironic that it was the new addition to our adventure who had us standing by the side of the road moments after leaving Zebrabar staring at his deflated front tyre. The advantage of undertaking a long trip of this nature means that the inevitable delay a puncture causes is nothing more than a small, uncontrollable annoyance which is easily ignored in the general scheme of things and nothing more.
Having fixed the flat and returned to making good easy progress, we spotted a familiar silhouette parked in a lay-by on the other side. A middle aged Italian, on his sixth solo trip through Africa on his faithful Africa Twin had paused for a breather and was pleased to see two more ATs and three grinning westerners, even though he, like everyone else we met, had no idea what Chris' CCM was. He commented that we were the first fellow overlanders he'd seen since leaving Niger and was able to give us great advice about Gabon, Congo and beyond. Whilst we were chatting, we noticed that Chris had his second front puncture of the morning. His spare tube had already been used but we were able to quickly spot the cause of the problem - this time a disintegrating rim-lock which was simply removed.
An entertaining addtion to our travelling has been Chris' helmet camera and it was whilst capturing some footage on the piste at the end of the tiring journey to the Lake that our focus slipped and one of the team suffered a near miss in the form of a crash whilst travelling at speed. Dan was following a little too close in Chris's wake and was unable to see a deep sandy trench until it was too late to avoid. The ensuing loss of control resulted in both Dan and his bike lying down for a bit of a rest but thankfully the protective kit on the bike did it's job and no damage was sustained, and the only harm to the rider was a dent in his pride. With the bike righted and rider dusted down, we could continue on to the Café, bones intact and lesson learnt.
All three of us have been struck by the empty campsites that have greeted us each evening. We'd envisaged a steady flow of overlanders, and we know of a few groups of bikes going in the same direction ahead of us, but we've not been bumping into random others. I don't know quite what we'd expected, but maybe a few more people on bikes and in 4x4s at the Zebrabar at least. It may be simply that we're at the very beginning of the season, and people perhaps only leave Europe around now to avoid even more of the Saharan heat.
The journey back round Lac Rose held only one surprise. A group of children had gathered next to a deep sandy section of the piste. Ed handled this by gassing it towards the kids who scattered, clearing the firmer ground for his passage. Chris, on the lighter CCM simply gassed it through the sand. Dan, bringing up the rear tried to avoid the kids, didn't scrub off enough speed for his heavy bike and dropped it in the sand for the second time in as many days, this time at least whilst very nearly at a standstill. Having picked the bike up on his own, he managed to get back on and moving again, only for one of the now swarming kids to get in the way and cause the bike to fall again. This time it was all the way over on it's side, and required the assistance of a returning team-mate to right.
On the road from the pistes round the lake to join the main route to Kaolak, we hit our first proper African traffic jam. The bikes got hot from the endless idling, their fans kicking in and blasting our right legs with even more heat. Left hands got tired from endless use of the clutch, and the riders could do nothing but sit and sweat. The air quality was pretty shoddy, with visible smog from the mechanical traffic mixed with the other smells of a hot city. What we couldn't help but notice was the mixture of the familiar facets of a modern lifestyle: mobile phones and traffic jams - with the archaic: donkey traffic still holding it's own against the rise of the machines.
Up ahead of Ed there was a crash. A car pulled out of a side turning into the rear corner of a car already in the jam. You would think it pretty difficult to argue over blame under the circumstances, but a heated discussion ensued regardless.
Once further from the filthy commercial hub of Kaolak, the traffic thinned and once again we could motor along at a good pace. However, the optimistic progress of the whole day's riding was replaced by what can only be described as confusion as the beautiful tarmac we'd seen to to Kaolak and beyond became an utterly destroyed surface. Tarmac became potholes, potholes became dirt, dirt became a corrugated mess with a thick layer of dust on top. And this on the main highway that joins modern Senegal with the similarly international Gambia.
A word on the people of Senegal - they seem lovely. Through the smaller places where the people have not yet adopted the modern cynicism of the west we have been merrily waving to most of the people we see - particularly groups of children or adults with children. Almost without exception, we get a big grin and a wave in return - try doing that in Surrey.
We found a pleasant place to stay in Toubacouta, the Campement Les Coquillages. By this stage the main highway is back to good tarmac, but the majority of the town's accomodation is off to the right down a dusty piste. There are resorts that have been built around the south side of the delta to mirror the apparently more desirable ones to the north, but in the interests of finding budget accomodation, we didn't quite venture to the water's edge. We negotiated a price of 3000 CFA for the camping at the Coquillages, and the guy was keen to cook for us and went into the village to buy some fresh fish. The meal was excellent, though by the morning, the price of the camping had tripled to 3000 CFA each...
On the morning of Sunday 4th November we set off for the Gambian
border, not knowing quite what to expect. The road was good all the
way to Karang, the Senegalese border post. Once there, we were stamped
out of Senegal without fee, and the carnets for the bikes were also
stamped out without a request for money, a refreshing change. All that remained, was a few more metres of tarmac to take us to The Gambia.
Shortly after lunch on 10th November, we and the bikes were stamped back into Senegal without fee, and were soon on our way to Tambacounda. After the border post, the piste continued only a short way before it became tarmac road again, and the progress was easy.
The guide books couldn't recommend us a campsite, so we simply followed signs to a likely looking auberge, in the hope they'd allow us to camp there. We were welcomed by the proprietress of Le Ninki-Nanka, shown where we could park the bikes securely round the back and where we could camp on the flat roof. Before long we'd agreed a price, set up the tents and were relaxing with chilled beers on our private roof terrace, listening in to the old-school dance choons blaring out of the low-fi system in the room below. Perfect.
Two welcome contrasts with the African states further north that struck us when we arrived in Senegal the first time round were the universal presence of proper western toilets (France would do well to learn from the sanitation of their former colony) and the sudden appearance of pretty women on the scene. Clearly it's not that the women of Arab Africa are genetically pre-disposed to be ugly, it's just that they're all covered up and de-feminised. You arrive in Senegal and suddenly all the young women are wearing pretty frocks and making an effort with their hair and make-up and as a red-blooded male you can't help but notice.
With everything packed back away, the kids pacified with the distribution of highly desirable empty plastic water bottles and the excess chilled Coke passed to the nearby group of adults who'd helped keep the kids under control, all that remained was to kit up and get the bike back on it's wheels. Which is where it all finally went wrong. With the bike facing slightly uphill, Dan needed to position his feet further towards the rear of the bike than normal to push the bike forward off the stand. As it came down, the front edge of the left pannier landed on the top of the back of Dan's right boot. This canted the bike over to the right, necessitating a bit of strain on Dan's back to stop it toppling away from him. The Africa Twin is a top heavy bike before you strap luggage to it, and we've spent much time discussing the reasons the Honda engineers may have had for choosing to make the fuel cap or perhaps the mirrors out of Dark Matter. We've not come to any conclusions yet, but neither have we improved the situation by bolting on two 20kg panniers, strapping on a 10kg rack pack and lashing a spare rear tyre and ten litres of fuel to the pillion seat. As the bike starts to lean, there's a moment of calm before the fuel-tsunami hits the other side of the jerry-can, and then you know you're in trouble. Of course, to remedy the situation, Dan had no choice but to further strain his back to lean the bike further away from himself to release his boot - and then even more to right the bike once his boot was liberated. Dan knew immediately that his back had suffered, but there semed little point in hanging around as sitting around back at Le Ninki-Nanka was unlikely to cause any less discomfort than the tarmac road to Kayes in Mali.