Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Benin and Nigeria

Mammoth blog entry coming up - communications through Benin and Nigeria were very poor - mostly reduced to occasional texts, usually using the Swiss mobile phone (thank you!!).  So the following diary extracts only came through the day before yesterday - so there's a back log.

Andrew is currently safely in Cameroon where he is sorting visas, will soon be fixing the bike (parts are almost all there now) and enjoying Pete's beers, pool and the first salad he's eaten since Spain! (never touch uncooked food).  I will load his Cameroon diary entries all in a oner, hopefully in about a week from now.

Until then - brace yourselves ...

7.2.10 – Day 50 - Lome

… On the ride back to Lome my bike had trouble for the first time. As I’d release the throttle and pull the clutch in the engine would cut out. It didn’t happen all the time at first, but by the time I got to Lome I had to keep the throttle open to keep the bike from stalling when I stopped in the traffic… I was worried that using so much 4 star petrol rather than unleaded was clogging up my exhaust and catalytic converter, causing the exhaust fumes to be ‘trapped’. I thought on Monday I’d take the bike to the KTM dealer in Lome – my last chance for a mechanic experienced in these kind of bikes. Later in the day though I wondered whether it might just be that idle-ing speed was too low. A quick check of my manual, 15 minutes tinkering with the bike and a quick test ride and problem sorted! The idle screw must have been loosening off over time. It should idle between 1400 and 1600 rpm – it was idle-ing at 900! Phew! At least the bike still works.

I had a meeting with the swiss and germans this evening and it looks like they are going to wait and see if I get my Nigerian visa, then we’ll all head off in convoy through the South of Nigeria. It seems to be the country that people fear the most. Notorious for corruption, crime and kidnapping – alongside sporadic ethnic violence in the North. In the delta region of the south where all the oil is – 200 foreign nationals have been kidnapped since 2007. Our route should avoid most of the problems though.

8.2.10 – Day 51 – Lome

So, I dropped my passport off at the Nigerian embassy – finally. Just as I was handing over my visa application form, 2 photos, photocopy of passport x 2, photocopy of letter of invitation – the unfriendly lady said “are you riding by motorbike?” I said yes – “So I’ll need a photocopy of your carnet de passage and vehicle registration document”. Ahhaaa! I’d already pre-empted this next hurdle and passed over the photocopies. I should have been able to pick up the visa and passport at 9am the next day. It seems as a way of exerting her power over me for having had all the right documents, she says I can collect after 3 tomorrow! What a vindictive lady! Later in the day I had a meeting with the Swiss couple (on a motorbike) and the German couple (in their van) to make final arrangements for our small convoy across Nigeria. Assuming I get my visa tomorrow I’ll head into Benin late and meet them the day after tomorrow. They’ll leave tomorrow morning.

9.2.10 – Day 52 – Abomey, Benin

Well, I got my Nigerian visa – just! I arrived to collect the visa at 2pm. The same lady behind the desk was sat doing nothing with no one else in the office – with just my passport sat on her desk. I asked for my passport and visa – she said she hadn’t done the processing and I’d have to have another meeting with the High Commissioner. She asked if I wanted to leave without the visa. I said no, I’ll wait. I was sure I wasn’t going to get my visa today. I waited for half an hour – no meeting. But I was given my passport (which must have already had the visa in it) and left. I’m so glad to get the visa – otherwise the alternatives would be very bad for me. But the whole process was like the lady – nasty.

Oche - a Nigerian friend from Edinburgh was so kind though, helping me with a letter of invitation. Without him, my trip might well now be over.

I got through the Togo/Benin border at 4pm and headed to meet the others in the convoy. The locals I met seemed more relaxed and open than those I met in Togo. Maybe it’s just a more stable country. I got to Abomey just as it was getting dark. People always tell me with the opening and closing fit, or the flashing of lights, that I should turn my headlights off (you can’t on European bikes) – they get infuriated by it1 What’s strange though, is as it actually started getting dark, more and more people started flashing. It seems that most people don’t use their head lights in the dark! I’m sure there must be a logic here – but I can’t see it.

10.2.10 – Day 53 – Come, Benin

As the German guy I’m travelling with today said “this is your second birthday”.

The 2 Swiss on motorbike, the 2 Germans in their 4x4 and I set off for the Nigerian border at 8ish. ... On a straight section of road we were travelling at about 60 miles per hour when my rear wheel locked solid. The bike immediately started skidding and I did all I could to control it. After about 40 metres the rear wheel started to slide out to the left, as which point I was sliding down the road almost sideways. This pulled me in the wrong side of the road. Luckily, there was no on-coming traffic.

I held on for as long as I could before letting go of the bike and sliding down the road. I slid a long way on my right hand side with the bike ahead of me. The Germans said I flipped once before springing to me feet. Unbelievable I’d sustained no real damage. The Kevlar in my jeans protected my legs and the armour on my elbow saved my arm. There are friction burns through the jacket and gloves, but I only sustained a minor rash on my hip and forearm. No bruising or blood at all. I’m so glad I was with others in the convoy. They rushed to help get me and the bike off the road, sat me down and put bandages and disinfectant on my arm. I wasn’t panicked or in shock, but I couldn’t help feeling how selfish this is for Tracy and the baby. In a way I’m quite fatalistic for myself, but it’s others I worry for. If I was 22 with no one relying on me coming home, it would be easier to accept the risks of motorcycling across Africa.

The chain had broken and caught around the chain ring. With the help of Daniel (the Swiss) we got the wheel and chain off before getting a tow into town with the other motorbike. The list of damage is as follows:

Bent chain ring, bent and damaged swinging arm, wrecked chain, bent rear break leaver, broken locking mechanism for one of the rear panniers, nuts on the chain ring were sheared and the front forks are bent.

Daniel sorted out finding a hotel and a mechanics shop. I didn’t hold out much chance of getting the bike on the road again, but the mechanic seemed confident with the rudimentary tools and on a dirt floor by the side of the road they got the bike going. It is like a wounded horse that may only just limp along, but at the moment it moves! The others kindly stayed with me, which was really good of them – and their French skills were so useful in communicating with the mechanics. Some people say this kind of even makes you feel glad to be alive – I was plenty alive enough beforehand. I’m just glad not to be dead.

11.2.10 – Day 54 – Kuta, Nigeria

Well, another testing day. I tested the bike this morning to find that it worked, but anything over 30mph caused worrying vibrations through the bike. We set off again for the Nigerian border. Yet again we missed the customs post on the Benin side, but got the police to stamp our carnet de passage, The Nigerian customs post was down some very unlikely-looking tracks through a small villages. There we had a look at the rear swing arm of the bike – it was cracked on 2 of its 4 sides. This is the thing that keeps the rear wheel in place. It was apparent that I shouldn’t bike any further than I needed to get it sorted out, or faster than I was willing to fall off the bike at. It could break at any time. I put my bags into the German’s van and carried on very slowly.

This was my lowest point of the journey so far. After falling yesterday and being told today that my bike was unrideable was a real blow. I thought it meant the end of the trip, the end of the good company or possibly 3 weeks hideous time in Lagos dealing with paperwork and customs. This would also leave me in Central Africa in the main wet season – not a good idea, and would probably not be able to see Tracy in South Africa.

The next 2 hours were infuriating. We passed through an incredible number of road blocks – police, immigration, health officer, army etc. It went on and on. In the first 15km there were perhaps 20 road blocks - mostly with guys in mud huts and not wearing any uniform apart from their flip flops and a dirty vest. All the road blocks had wood across the road with nails banged through facing upward. This level of control was surely just too bizarre. At least they were all very friendly – but all stopped us for a chat and handshake.

In the first big town Daniel had the great idea to try see if we could find an aluminium welder in town. Remarkably we tracked on down. They used a blow torch with gases concocted by themselves to melt aluminium onto the swinging arm. I’m still riding – and will hopefully ride another day.

12.2.10 – Day 55 – Benin City, Nigeria

Well Daniel has just come to my room to tell me he’s been electrified by the mains. About an hour ago when I last saw him, as we were moving into our rooms, I said “it’s a good day – well, at least we’ve had no accidents!” He was taking a shower but it was cold. He adjusted the boiler and got shocked. His hand gripped around a water pipe – so the only way to stop the electrocution was to pull the pipe right off the wall, filling the room with water in the process.

Today we headed down the main road east toward the dangerous part of Nigeria. Being white here brings a real possibility of kidnap. In the area just South of us 200 people have been kidnapped since 2007 – mostly oil men and most have been released. The road is something to behold. We had heard that it wasn’t too bad, but I’ll try and describe the route. The road goes through what would have been rain forest, but now is luck forest, scrub and palm oil plantations. The traffic is heavy, a mixture of insanely driven minivans, all with Christian slogans on them, slow moving trucks billowing out toxic black clouds of exhaust and car owners who like to see how fast their car can go. There are numerous army and police check points along the road – often less than a mile apart. Logs are placed in the dual carriageway as traffic calming so the police can stop you. All wear automatic rifles or machine guns, held ready to use. There are probably about 8 armed men at each stop. If a car doesn’t stop they have big sticks which they beat the car with. I think the income for this huge police force is through ‘dash’ or bribe. The police always stop us – sometimes flexing their guns to look the part, then always smile, shake our hands and find out where we are from. Out of dozens of road blocks I had only one police man asking for money. We did stop for one group of police though who had obviously had too much to drink and were dancing and acting the fool.

Often at these road blocks the locals make use of the traffic calming measures by standing on the road edge selling food and drink. Some women with plastic cones of nuts on trays on their heads, men selling cold water or deep fried sweet dough with a hard boiled egg inside. Occasionally there would be a village or town by the side of the road which has turned into a mile long truck stop. Parking is done on the outside or fast lane of the dual carriageway with the nearside being filled up with more people selling food and drink to the passengers of the slow vehicles which had had to slow down as the dual carriageway is only one lane wide now.

The open road between towns is littered with dozens of car and lorry wrecks sometimes with the bits still on the road, or being used by the police to make their road block.

We are now installed in our hotel which is surrounded by razor wire and has 2 security guards with AK47s, so I think we’ll be alright. The restaurant experience is getting familiar. A loud tv and music being pumped out of a stereo makes it difficult to talk. The waiter brings over a menu. You choose your dish. The waiter tells you he hasn’t got your choice. You ask him what he’s got. He says “fried chicken with rice or chips”. You order your food and drink and wait an hour or 2 for it to arrive – usually cold.

13.2.19 – Day 56 – Owerri, Nigeria

We have found a way to deal with the ridiculous amount of police road blocks – ‘the Jedi mind trick’. They all want to pull us over to ask us where we are going and where we’re from. If we are approaching fast they wave us down – we smile and wave back – invariably they start waving at us and we roll on through. If there is a queue of traffic approaching the road block, we pull up to the office with his big gun and before he can ask us to pull over we start asking his questions – usually directions. When he sees that traffic builds up he moves us on.

I forgot to mention that when we arrived in the first city of Nigeria we stopped in a big hotel for lunch. No sooner had we taken our helmets off, we were being interviewed by the state tv channel – a bit of a Ewan and Charlie moment in Kazakstan – I guess they thought it was because they were famous – sorry to disappoint you guys!

Lunch today was under cover in a mechanics bay in a fuel station hiding from the tropical rain. I eat fried plantain chips, home roasted cashew nuts and 4 boiled eggs. The ladies doing the selling were all wearing “God is Love” matching t shirts. They came undercover and each had an instrument in there – mainly percussion – drums and the like. They burst into African gospel singing for 20 minutes before sitting round for a group prayer.

This country is seriously religious – I’ve never seen such intense Christianity. Churches are everywhere, Evangelists fill the tv channels and all the transport on the road is covered in Christian slogans. Every fringe church seems to be represented here and most businesses are religiously branded. Such things as “Jesus is the power oil and lube company”. I’m kinda liking Nigeria so far – security is a concern, the roads are dangerous and the towns are polluted and congested, but the people seem friendly and engaging. In some ways this part of the country reminds me of India – in the last town we passed through they even have tuc tucs!

P.S. Well I’ve just come back from my evening meal. We ordered our food to be told it’ll be quick. The food arrived on the table more than 2.5 hours later. I’m exhausted, haven’t washed myself or my clothes and all I want to do is sleep.

14.1.10 – Day 57 – Calibar, Nigeria

Another bizarre day in Nigeria. As I came downstairs this morning I was greeted by a journalist for the regional paper – I guess not too many tourists come this way. After an interview and photos we set off into the fog.

This day has taken us through a really wild part of Nigeria. When we arrived this afternoon in Calibar we met a lady running a primate reserve. She asked us where we had been and she said “Wow, - Aba, you’re the brave ones – real blade runners!” I guess it WAS as bad as we feared. The volume of people in the towns is like being in India – heaving masses of humanity with heat, fumes, noise and traffic to match. In Aba we came to a standstill for a while. A police guy then ran straight past me shouting holding his AK47. Just as he passed the vehicle in front he started firing. A second cop followed quickly behind, firing also. As it turns out they were firing in the air – but it is a chilling sound and over the top for clearing a traffic jam. It’s these situations that could so easily escalate into something much worse.

Once out of town we pulled over in a quiet fuel stop. A guy came over and told us we shouldn’t hang around for too long – this is the area where armed militia have been taking foreigners hostage at an alarming rate. Armed robbery is also extremely common. Again, we had huge numbers of military and police checkpoints. Most gave us no trouble – only one guy asked for money and another came to ask questions with his belt undone, wearing flip flops and an AK47. In his hand he had a cut down water bottle as a glass and a half litre bottle of gin – he was pissed.

The scenery further south and east was stunning – such a vibrant green of trees and palm. Gently rolling and occasionally crossing beautiful rivers. There were plenty of pot holes in the road, but we only had to negotiate one very bad section of road. It was about 200m of deep mud which had various trucks stuck in it. The 2 motorbikes and 4x4 van made easy work of it. Today was Sunday and everyone was out in their Sunday best. Men in smart trousers and shirts and the women in elegant dresses in vibrant printed colours. In towns, evangelist preachers were played through loud speakers and in the countryside huge groups sat outside churches in the shade singing, playing music and praying. It gave a huge sense of community – everyone in the village coming together once a week to follow a common goal – something that has finished in the UK.

The people in Nigeria are so friendly, warm and welcoming. The country is a little intimidating, and for good reason, but the vibrancy and life here makes for great travelling. Today was Valentines day and all the police would say to us as we passed ‘happy valentines!’. That really sums up what I’ve seen of Nogeria so far.

PS – my favourite sign of the day is “stay focused, wear a condom”.

15.2.10 – Day 58 – Calibar

Well quite a relaxed and sedate day today. A trip to the Cameroon council proved easy visa pickings, if a little expensive at 96 Euro for a 30 day visa. The rest of the day was spent going to the ATM, tinkering with the bikes and clothes washing...

The parts I need to make my bike safe again should be waiting there in Douala. Tracy and a friend of Alice Kruuk’s (Pete Stacey) have been absolute starts getting it bought and sent out. Lets hope the bike holds out through the bad roads.

16.2.10 – Day 59 – Ikob – Nigeria

When I arrived in Ikob this afternoon I thought – well, at least I’ve had one hassle-free day on the road! How wrong was I?

Police road blocks were, for the first time in Nigeria, infrequent and the police weren’t armed up with machine guns behind sand bags.

There are some serious power problems here in Nigeria. Many of the fuel stations don’t have diesel or petrol and those that aren’t overpriced have huge tailbacks of cars and mopeds trying to fill up. Quite extraordinary for such a big oil exporter. The electricity is almost never on, so businesses rely almost exclusively on generators to supply power.

Once we arrived in Ikob, Ruben and Christine, the German couple in their 4x4 camper continued to the border and myself and the Swiss couple on the motorbike decided to stay in town. I had a look at the rear swinging arm of the bike (which was damaged in the crash) to find it has a crack 80% of the way round it. Totally unsafe and ready to break at any moment – which would of course end in a crash! So the Swiss tomorrow will carry on to the Cameroon border, whilst I have to find a way to get myself and the bike back to Calibar. From there I hope to take the ferry round the peninsular to Limbe in Cameroon.
I got adopted by a young lad called Paul who tried to help me all afternoon in the heat to find transport for tomorrow. First we headed to the main transport hub – a yard full of a random selection of knackered cars going in all directions – nothing was big enough for the bike. Then we headed to a couple of mechanics yards, full of dust and mechanics doing their best to keep dying cars alive. Eventually we found a minivan that was willing to take its seats out so I can get the bike in. Although tiring, walking around these small towns and meeting the people is always interesting. I met most of Paul’s family on the walks into town. His brothers who work in the plantations, his uncle who sells cars and his auntie.

My favourite religious sticker of the day: ‘shut up – are you god?’

17.2.10 – Day 60 – Calibar, Nigeria
The stresses and strains are really starting to get to me now. I’m emotionally exhausted. I’ve just managed to get the bike back from Ikom, 200km north of Calibar, to the port of Calibar, ready for the ferry on Friday. I managed to strap the bike into the back of the minivan and headed out at 7.30am. We pulled in at a garage and the driver asked for the full 30,000 nidra. I gave him 5,000 for the fuel. To give him the total amount would be a total disaster – I’m guessing I’d never have got here. We passed the check points, some of which he gave money to (bribes) and others he shouted “white man!” and carried on going. Even when the police threatened putting down stinger strips to puncture the tyres. We later stopped again for fuel and again the driver asked for the balance of payment – I gave him another 5,000. I had arranged to drop the bike off at the ferry port, then have my bags and myself dropped at a hotel.

My driver said “you can get a taxi to the hotel”. I said NO. We arrived at the port to be welcomed by a cop in a polo shirt talking about rules and procedure – a direct translation is bribes and extortion. He wouldn’t let me take the bike off the van until I’d paid him 1,000 (cash in hand, no receipt). I called my contact by mobile to come out and meet me by the van. He assured me I’d be causing more trouble for myself if I didn’t pay. My driver tried to get me to pay the rest of the fair so he could disappear – no chance! He then tried to pull me aside from the crowd to exhort more pressure – I refused. Then the guy at the gate wouldn’t open it until I paid 500. The guys who lifted my bike down wanted 2,000 – my contact told them 1,000 between them was plenty. My driver again tried to dump me, but after much shouting and discussing between all the people gathered around, he was forced to take me to my hotel Just as we were leaving, some other guy tried to get more money out of me – I told him to ‘fuck off!’.

When I got to the hotel eventually at about 1pm I realised the driver had hidden my straps that I had used to tie down the bike, so I had to ask for them before I was going to pay him. Cheeky bastard. Then as I went to reception he asks “now for something extra”. I said “you must be joking”. He said “what about something for a beer?”. I said “you must be kidding – if you want more business you should make good business”.

When we were driving back from the port I saw 2 guys in a real fist fight with a bunch of onlookers – I wish one of them was my driver – looser! It’s just that I feel at the moment everyone is out to screw me over – and they seem to be succeeding! It’s difficult when you’re always on the defensive – knowing that people you are dealing with either want to rip you off, extort you, deceive you or steal from you. The most apt description for a white man in these parts is “a walking ATM”.

18.2.10 – Day 61 – Calibar, Nigeria

Well I hope I leave Nigeria tomorrow! I think if things had been different I would have come away from Nigeria with a much more positive view – as it happens, with all the problems with the bike I’ve had to deal with Nigeria’s corrupt systems. It’s like a cancer running through the veins of the country. I was down at the port again today getting tickets for the ferry tomorrow. I was speaking to my contact there who was asking money for the customs officials. I told him about yesterday and all the bribing and lack of receipts from the police. He said “you won’t get receipts from the customs either – this is Africa!” “no, No’” I felt like saying, “this is Nigeria”.

Yet again very close to where I saw a fight yesterday by the docks I saw another fist fight. There is so much inequality here, so much corruption and, it seems, anger. I sense there is a good country at heart here, but I’m just not seeing it at the moment. When I arrived in Nigeria the people seemed so jubilant and full of life and smiles – but down here I just don’t know. The way I’ve been treated by some people just really makes me want to leave. For most of the day I’ve been lying naked under the fan in my room trying to keep cool, reading and waiting for the boat tomorrow. This is the second time in the trip I feel as if I’m in that scene from Apocalypse Now. I’m so glad last night I didn’t buy that half bottle of blended rum for 50p! Hopefully in Douala I can get the trip back on track when the parts arrive for the bike.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


30.1.2010 – Day 42 – Lome, Togo

Wow – again – what a day! I set off at dawn with no cash or fuel! I’d used all my Ghanian money on fuel, as I’d had to drive further than anticipated. Through mental traffic, I headed for Accra, looking for an ATM and fuel. Luckily my fuel reserves lasted out and I found the ATM (that worked) and a garage (with petrol).

At the Ghana/Togo border, when I was getting my passport stamped, the radio had a DJ shouting off at the UK, saying that Ghana isn’t a Banana Republic, as I was being asked for a small bribe at the time! These borders are something else. Quite difficult to describe really. It appears like total chaos on the surface, with people, officials, offices and trucks everywhere. I had my usual money-changing helper to ease me through. The officials are a mixture of over-diligent and pernikity, and the obviously bent. It should have been 10,000f for the Togo visa but I got asked for money 4 times in Ghana: once a cadeau (gift), once for a gate (!?) On the Toho side I paid 10,000f for the visa, 1,000f for something else and I avoided the guy asking 10,000f for yellow piece of paper. What a load of nonsense!

I’ve arrived in Togo and am staying in an overlander’s hideout, just out of the capital, Lome. I’ve got to get myself sorted out here so I’ll be here a minimum of a few days. I need to try to get a Nigerian visa – could be difficult; get the bike serviced at the West Africa KTM dealer and rest. My impressions of Lome aren’t great so far. The main road goes along the coast which looks stunning. There are traditional fishing boats pulled up on the white sand. There is a burnt out and derelict Brighton-style pier with tired looking buildings inland. I passed factories pumping out huge plumes of fumes from their chimneys and the air has the mixed aroma of shit, fish and dead animals! PS to my great amusement today I sweated profusely wearing my big biking jacket while at customs at the border. The sweat dripped off me in impressive amounts, along with all the muck from the roads that had coated my body. What looked like mud dropped all over the documents, all over the official’s desk and even over his shoes!

I was feeling a little despondent, tired, fatigued, dirty and sweaty by the time I arrived in Lome. But how fast things change. I’m tired and thought that the visa problems might stop me in my tracks pretty soon. But I met a German couple this afternoon who are doing a similar trip to me in a camper. They had some very useful info and there is even talk of going in convoy through the worst parts of Central Africa. As I walked the dusty streets this evening looking for internet, I suddenly had a spring in my step – optimism returns – and a day off tomorrow – even better, it’ll be Sunday so I won’t be able to do a thing!

31.1.10 – Day 43 – Lome

Today is my first day doing absolutely nothing. I’m staying in a place called Chez Alice. Alice is an elderly German lady who runs this place. There is a bar with restaurant under a large thatched communal area, a collection of basic bungalows and an area for overlanders to make camp. Tourism in Togo is on its knees – many years of political and security instability has kept the tourists away. It’s a shame as the interior of the country is supposed to be stunning. Beautiful hill country and the beaches are as perfect as anywhere I’d seen. You can’t go on the beaches of course – well, certainly not by yourself, not at night and not with any valuables.

Chez Alice has the odd overlander that still comes through this way and a mix of ‘locals’ who have made Chez Alice their home from home. They are a bunch of Germans (Togo used to be a German colony until WW2) who sit around the same table all day every day. I’d like to know their stories of how they ended up here. There is the guy with Forrest Gump beard and hair. One guy was up this morning tucking into his first can of Bitburger Beer at 7.20am! There are the 2 guys with Togo girlfriends who both have the African moustache. A sad looking bunch really, although they probably think the same of me – sat here by myself writing my journal.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult taking photos and video. The police are hyper sensitive about images being taken of anything remotely important – big roads, bridges, official buildings, telephone masts, ports or themselves! The people also aren’t keen on their photo being taken, which isn’t surprising I guess. The other issue is security for the camera. You can’t just flash if around, particularly in cities as mugging or theft is a real possibility. At least Chez Alice is a haven to relax in for the day.

1.2.2010 – Day 44 – Lome

Well, I’ve got to slow down now for a while, to collect all the visas I need. It’s good to stay in one place, as it gives me a chance to meet other overlanders and find out what is going on with security and politics – particularly visa info. The first job today was to get a taxi to the immigration centre for Togo, to upgrade my 7 day visa to a 2 week one. I also went to the Angola Embassy to find out it isn’t possible to get a visa for Angola here. The Benin Embassy was much more helpful and getting the Benin visa here should be quick. I later visited Toni Togo KTM, the regional KTM motorbike dealer. They have their own Paris-Dakar team and I found out that the team mechanic can do a service on my bike. Result!

The centre of Lome is not much more than a few dusty streets – plenty of traffic and a big market. It really doesn’t feel like a capital at all – strange. Tarmac, sand and rublle streets are filled with activity. People, sellers, motorbikes and cars all jostle for space in the oppressive humid heat. Plenty of shouting and laughing with cars and moto joining in with their horns. Many of the sellers are women with any number of things on their heads. The balance is extraordinary – I couldn’t help but smile, it is so sensible: why bother carrying anything by hand when you can carry it on your head? Boxes of doughnuts, bowls of flip flops, bowls of grain, piles of clothes, woven dishes or dried fish etc etc. The colour and intensity is something else.

Occasionally there will be a music shop with pirated CDs being blasted out at top volume with incredible levels of distortion. How anyone knows what song is being played or how any one could work in that racket is beyond me. The taxi rank is on the coast road where people swap from shared car taxis for getting in and out of town and motorbike taxis to get you to your final destination. The shared taxis are knackered old European imports with several 100,000 kms on the clock and interiors to match! Four people squeeze in the back and 2 in the passenger seat.

Across the road from the taxi rank is the palm-lined beach. A beautiful and very wide sandy beach with tens of men pulling fishing boars and nets in from the surf.

2.2.10 – Day 45 – Lome

Today was another admin day. The bike got taken in for a service at 8am, I went to collect my passport from Togo immigration and dropped it off at the Benin Embassy for a Benin visa. I won’t go into the web of decisions and difficulties with the visas, just let me say it’s a complete bureaucratic nightmare. The colonial powers of Africa didn’t leave much, but they did instill the important of mindless endless paperwork.

3.2.10 – Day 46 – Lome

I couldn’t pick up my Benin visa until 4pm today, so, to avoid going bonkers waiting in Chez Alice, I headed 20km down the road to Lake Togo. On the far bank of the lake is the town that is very imaginatively named Togoville! I hired a local punt/boat to get there. It’s a small wooden boat with a guy in the back playing the role of gondolier/punter with a smoothed down plan frond to push the boat the 35 minutes to the other side. Togoville is famous for 2 things: 1. the Pope has been here, 2. it is a voodoo centre. Many of the slaves who got taken to Haiti came from here. The mixture of Togo animist voodoo and Christianity gave Haiti its infamous religion. Luckily for me it was market day today. Much of the market is geared towards exchange. No money is exchanged at all, just goods.

The town is scattered with shrines and others statues. One reminds me a little of Buddist/Hindu shrines. One of them had a big willy and another effigy had the voodoo spikes shoved through it – spooky! The local name here for voodoo is just “fetish”. A section of the market is set aside for fetish – no – not Anne Summers rubber wear, but the ingredients for the potions used by the prescribing doctor. After getting sunburned on the way back, I headed into town to pick up my Benin visa. I tried to go to the Nigerian Consulate, but it was closed.

What I’m enjoying here is the handshake. You shake as normal, then keeping palms of hands pushing – pull away and when you get to finger tips you ‘click’ eachother’s fingers - how cool!

4.2.2010 – Day 47 – Lome

All in all a frustrating day. I went to get a Nigerian visa at the High Commission. I arrived at 9am and was told (predictably) that I couldn’t get a Nigerian visa. I was asked to wait to speak to the High Commissioner. I sat for 11/2 hours before I was blessed with his presence. He asked me what I wanted. I said a 30 day tourist visa. He said “impossible”. He looked at my letter of invitation and said “you can’t go to Jos” (the city on the invite letter). I said “that’s ok, I’ll meet my friend in Abuja”. In the end he said if I came back with a second letter of invitation he would consider giving me a few days. Unfortunately the power was out most of the day so there was no phone connection, email or mobile connection to the UK. After a frustrating few hours I got through to Tracy at home and she got the ball rolling – trying to get the letter!
5.2.2010 – Day 48 – Lome
Oche – a Nigerian friend in Edinburgh - has kindly written a new letter of invitation for me! I went to an internet café, found the email and managed to print it out! I felt the day was going to be a lucky one. I arrived at the Nigerian Embassy after collecting my passport from the DRC Embassy (I forgot to mention yesterday that after being refused a Nigerian visa I went to the DRC Embassy to try for a DRC visa – no problem – just a 24 hour wait. If an Embassy’s location is a reflection of its status in the world and wealth, DRC is obviously not doing too well – the street outside was literally just rubble and rubbish, in the middle of a residential area. I could only just manage to get my all-terrain motorbike there!).

All was going well, I filled out the visa application form for Nigeria x 2, gave 53,000f, 2 photos, 2 copies of passport, 2 copies of carnet etc etc. The lady behind the desk stapled it all together then paused…..”you can only collect visas on Tuesdays, it’s now Friday. It’s best if you come back on Monday with all the forms”. She handed all the paperwork back to me over the counter! So near, yet so far!

6.2.2010 – Day 49 – Kpalime

The long wait at Lome has landed me at the weekend, with all the Embassies closed for the weekend. I’ve decided to try escape to the cool of the hills. The heat and humidity of Lome is oppressive at this time of year. I rode 120km North West to the hilly town of Kpalime. It’s touted as being “Togo’s most attractive town” – from what I’ve seen of Kpalime, this doesn’t bode well for the other Togonise towns! Kpalime is at about 600m so IS bearable hot, rather than a furnace. It’s hilly, green and plenty of tropical fruit is grown in the area. But Kpalime is the usual mix of markets and dusty roads. There is a kind of charm here, but it’s no St Andrews, Stow-on-the-Wold or Cheltenham!

On the way here I slowed up behind a small que of traffic. Creeping up the inside line I could see a large crowd of people with a rope across the road: there was plenty of shouting going on. This was no official road block. I wasn’t sure whether the people were trying to extort money or if this was a political protest. The election is happening here in a couple of weeks, and if Togo’s last election is anything to go by, you wouldn’t want to be here when the results are announced. Last time large numbers of people were killed. Being white in Africa can either be a good or a bad thing. Luckily for me at this road block it was a good thing. As I got to the rope I was signalled to cross the barricade and continue – phew! At Kpalime I found a guesthouse – with a pool – hurrahhh!!! After a swim I was properly cool for the first time in weeks. I’ve explored the area, seen impressive waterfalls and loads of beautiful butterflies.

Latest communication from Andrew is that today, Tuesday, he was praying he would be picking up his Nigeria visa at 3pm. I haven’t heard from him (mobile contact is erratic) and know that his plan, if he got the visa, was to hot foot it straight to Benin – the next country. Time would be tight to achieve this by dark, so here’s hoping that the lack of text to confirm he’s got the visa is an indication that he’s on his way to Benin. I’ll keep you posted! Ed.

PS – internet contact from now on until Namibia might be poor – I may have to update without his diary entries (which he photographs and sends to me) but I’ll keep you posted of progress.  Sadly, it also means we might not get much in the way of photos.  We will just have to wait and see...

Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana

22.1.10 – Day 34 – Bamako, Mali

Mali is poor, very poor. In fact it’s the 4th poorest country on earth, with 90% of the population living on less than ₤2 per day and one third of the population is malnourished. The cost of everything is about 50-75% of that in Europe, so that ₤2 doesn’t go very far. It would be the equivalent of earning ₤60 per month in the UK – before tax! Well in fact 90% of the population are earning less that that! I guess that accounts for the empty roads - a few trucks, some bush taxis and the odd NGO or rich businessman/politician. I’ve just been out in Bamako to one of its top bars. It’s mostly filled with whitey and his local girl friend. Behind the bar are 6 local bar tenders – they are wearing what in the UK would suggest they are working girls: short mini skirts with platforms, mountains of make up, unfeasibly short skirts etc etc. The waiters are all men, wearing red shirts and black trousers. It seems that most of these restaurants, bars and boutiques are owned by ex-pats. In town also, it is a mixture of expensive 4x4s, most carrying stickers of various aid agencies, and mopeds – I guess the affordable choice for the professional classes. It’s hard to believe that this is the capital city. I think if you took away all the foreign cash it would appear to be a knowheresville – so it’s even harder to believe that this town produces some of the world’s best musicians. How on earth they make the break is anyone’s guess. I like this dusty town though and especially it’s people: easy going, relaxed and friendly. I can see why the local girls would try to catch an NGO.

23.1.10 – 24.1.10 – Days 35 and 36 - Segou and Djenae
I left Bamako early, trying to beat the rush, but was too late. I wound my way through the mainly dire roads, all dusty and dirty with stuff being sold in shops, from stalls on the ground or by hand. Not far out of the city the traffic decreases to virtually nothing – what a relief! Virtually all the villages I pass are traditional mud dwellings – I think it is more of a sign of poverty than preservation. There are shacks by the side of the roads and at junctions or police checks. They often have speed humps to slow traffic down but invariably don’t have any warning or signage – so occasionally you hit one at full speed. No shacks look like food stalls or shops, but many are. I start my day with a milky coffee (café au lait) no less, but disappointingly it’s ‘Nescafe Special’ (a very small amount) with hot water and loads of sweetened condensed milk.

I find the shop and get a baguette – thank you French – a tin of sardines and water ready for lunch. I arrived in Segou on the banks of the Niger early in the day. It’s a sleepy place and a great place for a lazy afternoon. I met another German motorcyclist and spend most of the day with him. In the evening the restaurant we were in had a band. A mixture of older guys and boys – most of whom looked like they were straight from the streets. All the instruments were hand made out of wood, gourds and the like. The music was incredible – a mixture of high energy and blues (Malian style). There were drums, half a gourd on the floor used as a bass, xylophones and guitar-type instruments.

I was lucky to be with the German guy, as he said the previous night when he was by himself he kept on being approached by local women wanting to be his ‘expensive girlfriend’. Being with another person seems to keep them away!

Today I headed to Djenae, a town on an island on the Niger, famed for having the largest mud building in the world – a mud mosque. The crossing of the river involved my first African ferry experience. A flat bed ferry that carries 3 cars – or 3 motorbikes, a horse, 4 carts and ten passengers. There is no jetty, so the ferry runs around and lowers its landing ramp into the water. The river bank is sandy and to get to the ferry is about 10 feet through water, followed by a steep slippery ascent up the ramp. Being relatively new to motorcycling, it didn’t seem to be the best idea to ride it, but all the locals assure me it would be ok. I was shown the shallowest route through the water, then hit the gas to get up the ramp, slammed on the breaks at the top and gently slid into the car in front of me. At least I made it!

25.1.10 – Day 37 – Djenae

Djenae is a remarkable town – entirely made out of mud and unusually most buildings are more than 1 storey high. The mud mosque looks otherworldly and today is market day which is held in front of the mosque. People have been travelling here to trade for centuries, from as far afield as Morocco. Like Timbuctu, it’s one end of the Saharan trade routes. The town is full of Quoranic schools, where the masses of children learn to write Arabic scripture onto wooden boards. There are over 40 of these schools for its 14,000 population and 12 muslim universities. It is very poor here and electricity has only just arrived. All the toilets are long drops and the water comes from open wells. Tomorrow I’ll have to refuel before I leave for Dogon Country and it’ll be done from one of the many stalls that sell 4* petrol, by the litre, from old glass drinking bottles. I just hope the quality of the fuel is ok as my bike really prefers drinking unleaded – high octain!

Well, by the time I get to Ghana I’ll be gagging to speak English again. My French is so bad that I only manage the most basic requests, with so many French travellers here, and being a French speaking nation it is hard going.

26.1.10 – Day 38 – Bankas

Was a little low on fuel this morning when I left, so had to fill up as it was another 100km to the next gas station. The only option was from one of the tiny shops which sell all sorts of bits and pieces. I spoke with the owner the night before and he said he slept in the shop, so I could come as early as I wanted. The petrol is 4 star – not good for my bike and it comes in 1 litre glass bottles of various kinds. It looked dodgy, but the fuel worked. Another trip on the small ferry involved fording deep water to get on and off. I didn’t fall off, so felt quite proud of myself as its quite tricky, with deep sand on the shore. I headed for Dogon Country today and the direction of Burkina Faso. The first 150km was on good tarmac but it then deteriorated to single lane dirt piste. I’m so glad I’ve got the bike I had – it makes easy work of the dirt sections. The road crossed a rocky plateau with occasional rivers allowing lush vegetation. The track reached the edge of the huge “Falaise de Bandiagara’ escarpment, which drops 2 to 3 hundred metres to a vast flat land. Under the escarpment is the famous Dogon Country: an ethnic group with unusual settlements on the cliff face and bizarre history and belief systems. Not that all other belief systems are not bizarre! Amadou became my guide – a lovely young guy – but I couldn’t understand a word – I didn’t care really.

Tomorrow I hope to head into Burkina Faso.

27.1.10 – Day 39 – Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

The first 160km today was wide piste, mostly flat and straight and in a good state of repair. There was little traffic but when it came, huge clouds of dust would engulf me like thick fog. For a few seconds at a time I’d have no clue what was coming up. Occasionally there were concrete drains cutting across the road with concrete tops. Some of these had most of the top missing, and on one I didn’t see the 2 foot gaping hole. I pulled back as hard as I could on the handle bars and luckily I was going fast enough for the front wheel to clear it! I can average about 40 to 45 miles per hour on these dirt roads, which isn’t bad.

I crossed into Burkina Faso today and as seems to be the case in Africa, it was another bizarre border crossing. I drove straight through the customs post thinking it was just another road block. 2km down the road I saw my first car of the day – it was French and was parked next to a couple of mud huts – I pulled over to chat. Just as I was about to leave a guy in uniform appeared asking me if I wanted my passport stamped. I asked him if this was the border – he said yes! 20km down the road was another building with a flag flying. I stopped and asked if this was Burkino Faso. I man said Yes. I bought my visa from the small office with chickens running around my feet. I arrived in Ouagadougou late afternoon. First I went to the Nigerian Embassy to be told I couldn’t get a visa, then I tried to get a room at the Catholic Mission, “the only reliably safe place for a woman to sleep”. They wouldn’t accept me until 5pm so I headed to the edge of town and found my hotel.

It’s a very unlikely place. On the dusty ring road is a truck stop with perhaps 50 trucks sat in the dust. You drive through and at the other end is a gat to the “OK Hotel”. This place reminds me of movies like Blood Diamond or Hotel Rwanda. A little oasis in a run down city, with lovely gardens and a mixture of tourists and locals having lunch. White Africans with moustaches sit in the lounge talking business (I’m sure it’s arms deals!) and drinking beer.

28.1.2010 – Day 40 – Ghana – (not sure where! - Ed)

I stopped for breakfast after an hour or twos riding toward the border. I picked up some fried dough balls with fish paste inside and a Nescafe coffee (no milk). Two types of people invariably turn up at these stops: one are the children sent out with a tin to go around asking for food for the family and the other are the mentally ill. It seems every town has at least one young man with matted hair and extremely filthy who is obviously ill. In the UK, I guess these people are kept in homes – so they are out of sight. But in Africa they are left to their own devices. I arrived at the Ghanian border to find out that the issuing of visas at the borders ended a month ago. Bloody typical. Luckily Ghana is English speaking, so had a good chat to the police about my bike and trip. They wanted me to go back to Ouagadougou to get a visa! With some gentle encouragement they let me get a 48 hour transit visa so I can get to Togo. It cost me ₤20 and I was told that if I went over the 48 hours there would be an ₤80 fine. The thing is, the proper visas at the border cost ₤100, so it wouldn’t make any difference if I had to pay the fine!

Ghana is obviously very poor, with much of the population living in traditional mud and thatch hut villages, but there is more money here with the general population. There are restaurants for locals (as oppose to NGOs and foreigners) and many more of the buildings are made out of concrete. It feels like a half-way stop in development from the very poorest African countries and the developing Asian nations.

I wish it was as easy in my university days to pick up women as it is here! I stopped in the big town at the ATM. No sooner had I finished, the woman talking to the security guard said “I like your body!” and I said “thanks”. She said “where are you from?” I said “Scotland”. Then she said, “I like you, do you like me?”. Talk about forward! I made up a fib (what fib exactly?? Ed/wife) and scuttled out of the bank as soon as possible. Quite frightening with no beer inside you!

Late in the day I met a German guy who over 5 months had cycled 10,000km from Germany to here. We both pulled over for a coke and a chat. As it happens he has the same bike as Tracy – he’s had no problems and loves it. Later, in the next town, I saw him in the reception of the Catholic Mission Guest House. We’re now sharing a room. Ghana is in the semi-final of the African Football Cup tonight. Should be fun – especially if they win!

Next country - Togo! - Ed