Tales from the Road
These are a collection of writings done while Al was visiting the 40+ countries he has traveled. We will be adding other adventures and countries from time to time. Enjoy!
The African Journals
The US Embassy – a checkpoint when traveling through Africa. It’s a place where you can speak English again, see American faces, and even find out what has been happening “back home.” Traveling Africa, you lose all sense of time and values; the things that matter are the next drinkable water and edible food, and the next petrol stop. But this time Sue and I are in Niamey Niger at the American Embassy trying to find out if the border of Mali is open.
“What do you mean, the war just started in Mali?” I ask the Embassy. We need to know if the border is open for us to get in; our visa is up in two days and we must be at the border then, and no later.
If we don’t make it to the border in time, we must get another visa in Vienna, Austria where we got our original one three months before. And I wasn’t about to travel half of the Sahara again just for a visa.
“So what are the options?” I ask the ambassador. “Do you see an end to the war soon?” In my head I’m hoping he’ll say be tomorrow, but instead I get a quick “No.” We sit with shoulders slumped, looking at each other, wondering if we really want to wait in Niamey for at least a month to get proper paperwork before heading back through the 4000 miles of Sahara we’ve already been through, or continue on with the plan to finish the Paris-Dakar route.
Over dinner that night we discuss what we should do. At the campground is a conglomerate of world travelers, all in specialized vehicles, heading to their own dream in the Sahara. None had been in Mali before, and they couldn’t help us in our decision.
We both agree turning back would not do. So a good night’s sleep and off early in the morning is the only option.
We are up early packing the bike as the city of one million (and only three traffic lights) is coming alive. We wish everyone “bon route” and head to the Embassy to tell them our plans.
It is only 100 miles to the border, so I thought we would take it easy and break it up into two days. The first day in relative African terms is easy; we finally get out of Niamey by noon. The first 40 miles are paved road, so I am savoring the rider by only going 40 mph, enjoying every minute. We know what was in store for us.
Stopping at the last town for supplies, we stock up on anything that is available – packaged cookies one year past the expiration, dates and the fresh bread which can be found all over Africa. We fill the 10-gallon gasoline tank until it overflow to be sure we get as much as possible. We look at each other, thinking that this is a road that leads us nowhere, and start to putt down the road.
Just outside of town, the pavement quits and the work begins. There’s a certain feeling when you leave the easy pavement and mentally prepare for the deep sand. After 20 miles of sand we stop to rest and enjoy the peace and quiet that never can be had in any of the African villages, where the kids pile around the bike ten feet deep and scream at the top of their lungs – “Paris-Dakar – Paris-Dakar – premier (first) premier – dom wa kado (give me gift).” We are taking the actual Paris-Dakar route and the villages know it’s about that time of year. They see us on the bike and think we’re the first racers. Everybody want to touch us and see the bike! There is absolute chaos at each village we enter.
We elect to go only a few more miles that day and leave the last 40 miles for tomorrow. We’re up at dawn again with local tribal men sitting and watching at a short distance, wondering what this blue domed thing was that must have dropped during the night. We pop our heads out of the tent and startle them for a second. We give them the international signal of hello, a smile, and they smile back.
By now we’re used to the eyes always watching, and we prepare our breakfast and eat in front of them, knowing from other experiences that the little food we have just can’t be shared.
We let the dishes dry in the already muggy sun. Once the food is crusted hard, the pots and pans can be cleaned out with sand. There is no water usage. I start to pull up the tent and pack our stuff on the bike. The whole process takes about 45 minutes. All the time the natives are talking amongst themselves, laughing and clapping at out every step.
We bid them good-bye. They wave back with the enthusiasm of little kids waving to Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. We’re gone by 8:00 am. Next stop, the border. Or so we think.
The sand track turns to a floury consistency about 4 to 6 inches deep. We had good traction before, but now there are fist-sized rocks underneath. We stay in 1st or 2nd gear most of the time. My feet are spread trying to anticipate the next hidden boulder I’ll hit with my front wheel. When I do, the bike goes one way and I try to counteract it with my foot, continually hitting my shins. We stop to doctor it up – infection is the last thing we need in Africa.
The sun is getting hotter. It’s now 10:00 and we haven’t gone 5 miles yet. Incredibly thirsty, we go for a drink of water. In addition to purifying with tablets, we strain the water through our filter before drinking it. I’m beginning to wonder if anything could be easy in Africa!
We sit and contemplate for a second. If we continue on this road, I’m not going to have any shins left. We’re going to have to figure out a better way.
On one side of the road there is a field sparsely covered with corn stalks. The ears are already off and have been harvested; only the stalks of handlebar height are left standing.
We know if the special police catch us “off the track” here, there will be big fines. We have to take the chance; my shins won’t make it and we’re pressed for time. We must get tot eh border before it closes – our visa is up today. We have 20 miles to go and only 4 hours to do it in. So off cross-country we go, gritting through cornfields, reminding me of my childhood in Iowa riding my minibike out in the fields.
The ground was hard-packed and my hands felt like they were being whipped with a rope. Better than my shins. Three hours later I can feel we are near the border. After traversing the Sahara, you pick up a sixth sense. By taking a map and odometer reading, I guess the border is just over the next hill. So we go in search of the road, knowing we must not be seen out in the fields. We find the road and pop over the hill just in time to see the Niger border. Only hitting my shins a half-dozen more times, we plow through the last bit of deep sand. We coast up the Niger border trying to give the impression that the road was fine all the way, and park the bike under a tree.
I am so exhausted that Sue has to help me get it on the center stand. When we do, I look down to see the bottom of my BMW looking like a corn sheller with all the corn stalks sticking out. I just pray the border guards won’t see it!
At the border, we have to go through the usual ritual. After the normal bribes are handled, we are finally out of Niger and heading for Mali. We have only 5 miles of no-man’s land between borders, so we speed off to reach the once-evasive border, which is now in sight.
Pulling up to the border, we stop like we are coming in for a pit stop at Daytona, hop off the bike, and ask if the border is still open. When they said yes, we look at each other and dance around like we have just won the lottery.
This action sparks the curiosity of all of the guards; even the chief gets up from his desk to see what the commotion is about. About a dozen people crowd around and look at us like we had just cracked up.
” What’s the problem/?” says the police guard. “Nothing,” we say. “We’re just happy to be in Mali,” and we continue to dance and smile (something you never see in Algeria).
The rest of the people are going nowhere because no fuel is available in Mali. This is a country at war and the government needs all the fuel. We elect not to stay anywhere near the border, and ask how far to the next village. We know black market fuel is always available. In about 50 miles we come upon the town of Asongo. Heading into town, we get the reception we always do – screaming kids, yelling at the top of their lungs, wanting to touch what they think are the first riders in the Paris-Dakar race. Since the war has shut off all sources of fuel, we have to stop and inquire about black market fuel.
The kids point us in the right direction. A very distinguished man comes out of a hut; he has an air about him that everyone seems to respect, and they stay out of his way while he walks. We know at that moment who we will have to deal with.
“You need petrol?” he asks. We tell him we do. “There is no petrol in Mali now, the country is at war,” he says. Our jaws drop. We make up a story to explain to him why we must get to Dakar. We tell him that with his help we will be the winners of the Paris-Dakar race.
After we build up his already inflated ego a bit more, he produces petrol in glass liter jars. Each one is inspected and OK’d before being poured ever-so-carefully into the tank, with never a drop spilled. The whole process takes close to an hour, which is very good in African terms. There are about 6 ounces left of the last liter jar that won’t fit. They insist I take it because I have paid for it and no discount will be given on any returned portion. I say no and the little boys scramble for what is left, hoping to sell this petrol again. The bill for the 8 gallons is $52. We are happy we are on the road again. In the next town of Timbuktu we will get our visa extended, find a food supply and more petrol, hopefully. The 120 miles to Timbuktu are some of the best dirt road we’ve seen in Africa.
When we arrive in the town of about 10,000, the kids immediately gather around the bike and ask if we need a guide. I quickly appoint two boys to the task of watching the bike while we go off to get something to eat and drink. But first we must go to the police station and hand over our passports for another one of our 22 stamps. Each stamp entails a bribe. We find the petrol station, but it is shut down and we are told we must get permission from the special police to buy petrol. We know that will require more bribes, so we speed across the street and ask the young boys for petrol. They look around very carefully, and then pull out a hand lever to operate the electrically operated pumps. We fill our tank, this time at only $4 per gallon.
The man at the police station knows he is in control. He has our passports and we can go nowhere without them.
” You know this visa is only good for one week,” he says. “You must get an extension now.” “How much?” we ask. I have a figure of $3 I will pay, but this guy want’ $30. We tell him we will think about it but in the meantime can we have our passports back so we can sightsee in town. “You must extend your visa before heading out of town or big problems,” he says. We say we understand, telling him anything just to get our passports back in our hands. We finally achieve our goal and head out the door. The first thing I tell Sue is, “lets’ get the hell out of town.”
But which way is out of town? Should I ask someone, risking that they may run to the police, telling them we’re heading out of town? We decide to try to find it ourselves. The streets are only sand; they are made for people walking, not the two dozen trucks that are in town to drive on. We still have hoards of kids around us, maybe 20-30. I feel like I’m in a circus ring on a leash with 20 kids pulling on me. The scene is comical, but I’m not laughing.
Sue makes a joke and finally gets me to smile. We stop to ask a kid to show us the way out of town; at that point we don’t care if they run and tell the police. We can ride faster than they can run.
We get about 2km out of town, round a corner and see a little ferry that crosses the Niger River. We pass town guards on our left; I’m thinking they are the guys from who I get my boarding pass, so I go right by, heading for the waiting ferry.
AS we head by, they jump out and stop us. “I want to see your paperwork,” one says. We get our paperwork we had just received in town to show them. I see the ferry leaving. I have a feeling this ferry would not be back or would sink on its way over and we would be heading back to town. That would not be good at all.
He wanted to see the tourist tax card. We don’t have one. “You must go back to town to get one,” he says. “I’m not going back to town!” I told the guy. He thought he could issue me one here. It would cost $10 if I wanted a receipt – $1 without one. I calmly said, “No receipt.” We were then able to proceed to the boat waiting area. We drive 50 yards and wait at the edge of the water, watching the ferry still going across the river.
Sue and I start laughing out loud, talking of all the way a boat could sink. We figure on the way back it will be overturned by hippos.
As we wait, tow Norwegian girls drive up in their four-wheel drive. I was shocked. “What are you doing here?” I ask. “We work in a nearby village as missionaries, teaching the people to grow crops and teach school,” they said. “Amazing. How long have you been out here in the middle of this desert?” I ask. “Two years,” they reply. After much talking, they invite us to their village to see what’s going on. I told them we would meet them there and thanked them.
The little guy came to us and charged us about $1 for passage on the ferry (with receipt). The boat does make it back with two trucks, the girls with their four-wheel drive, and us on our motorcycle.
We look for hippos on the way over, but don’t see any this time. I have heard the stories and seen the destruction these oversize pigs can do to a village crop.
The boat arrives safely on the other side; the two trucks are off like a flash. I’m still getting my helmet on when a guard comes over to me. He wants $3. I tell him I have already paid and show him the receipt. He tells me that was for the boat ride; now he’s charging me to pass across his boat. I start yelling at him, telling him to get out of my way. He says no and shows his gun with a little more authority. I was willing to bet that there were no bullets in the gun, but since I’m not a betting man, I gave him $1 and he was happy.
I get to the edge of the boat and Sue hops on, asking what was going on back there. I tell her the guy wanted to pay five camels for her and I told him I couldn’t do that to him. Sue hits me, I laugh and we’re ready for the next thing Africa hands us.
We have just crossed the Nigel River in the country of Mali. It’s already getting dark. At 10 am that morning we were at the police station trying to get our passports. It is now after 4 pm and we have only traveled three miles. We have 60 miles of excellent dirt road to the town of Gossi, where the Norwegian girls lived.
It’s pitch black when we arrive in town. The kids are three feet deep all around us. They point out the way without even knowing where we want to go. The work is out that two people on a motorcycle are expected in town and every kid in the village wants to show us where to go.
We arrive at the gate of the Norwegian Mission. As we pass through the gate, it feels like the gates to heaven. The kids stay behind the fence. As we drive further, the noise of the kids grows fainter. I turn around and can’t believe there are no kids around us. Nelli comes out to greet us and welcome us to Gossi. She tells us we are lucky in our timing because they have just celebrated some Norwegian festival the day before and there is lots of extra food left.
After 2_ months working our way across the Sahara, our bodies have gotten used to couscous (like rice), sugar and dates. That’s all we have. We have forgotten about many of the foods, even after many nights lying awake in the tent, telling each other our dreams of what we want to eat.
My normal 175-lb body weight is now near 155. I listen to Nelli as she names off all of the different foods we are about to eat, but somehow it doesn’t really sink in until I walk through the door.
Before us is a feast fit for a king. There is easily enough food for more than a dozen people. They take us across the room and sit us in chairs. Just the feeling of sitting in a chair at a table is a new experience again.
They show us where the cold clear drinking water is. I pour a glass to hold it up to the light and look through it. I have never seen anything so beautiful. It is cool in my hand; I have forgotten water could be so cool. I want to take a drink, but experience has taught me well. I turn and ask if I have to filter it first. Nelli says, “No, it’s fine to drink.” Once I start I can’t stop. The glass is empty in two seconds. No matter how much I drink, I can’t taste it. Maybe I’m used to Africa scum.
I go to fill my first plate of food. I tell Sue we have visited heaven and hell on the same day. We laugh between bites.
The first plate doesn’t last five minutes. The second plate I try to mound even taller. Sue is doing all of the talking with our hosts; I can’t stop eating. Many times sues tells me to slow down, chew everything, but I don’t listen. I go for plate #3. I begin to wonder where I’m putting all of the food. I’ve eaten three massive plates of food in less than _ hour. Then it hits. First I start sweating and when I stand up and almost fall to the floor, I can’t believe what’s happening to me. Here I am taken in by these kind people, given all this great food, and I am going to get sick in the middle of their place.
I take a deep breath and walk out the door. I get another shock; going from cool air conditioning to 80 degrees of humid, bug infested air, kids yelling at the top of their lungs – AFRICA. I throw up big time. The locals seem to leave me alone for once. I finally head back inside. Sue comes running up to me; she sees I’m white as a sheet.
Nelli says, “He’ll be ok.” I don’t know what to say. I can’t even look Nelli in the eyes. What a fool I’ve made of myself, I say. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve done the same thing,” says Nelli. “I knew you were going to do that, but wasn’t it worth it to taste all those different tastes again after so long? Now in the morning you can take it a little slower.” Yeah, it was worth it, I tell her. I still feel dumb, though. Sue wishes me a Happy Birthday and that evening I sleep well.
We leave Nelli and the rest of the Norwegian girls; make plans to meet again and to keep in touch.
It is now January 13 and we are still 1200 miles from Dakar, Senegal. We want to arrive in Dakar before the final racers and to be part of the festivities. They are scheduled to arrive between January 24 and January 26, so we pick up our pace to beat them there. Just south of the town of Mopti, we stop to make some tea and eat a few dates. It has been at least 100 miles since we have seen anyone, but as soon as we stop, people begin to come out of the bush. As in most countries, the little kids come up the closest to see what you are all about. They do not speak English or French, so communication is difficult.
An old gentleman comes up to us and motions with his hands, rubbing his stomach and holding his head. He looks to be over 100 years old, but in this harsh desert lifestyle he could easily have been half that age. We realize that everyone around us thinks we are doctors, and they are asking for our help. A young girl comes forward and translates what he says into French. She says she realizes herself that we may not be doctors, but the people will believe nothing else. See, the doctors that come out to help these people in their villages are usually white, so when they see white people they assume they are doctors. The old man says many people in the village are sick as he holds his stomach and head at the same time. We do not have any medicines to spare, but we come up with a bright idea, cutting up aspirin to make it go further. We pull out two aspirin and cut each into four small pieces, telling the chief that they are very strong and only to take one little piece. We hand the cut up aspirin to him; he puts forward both hands cupped as if he were receiving a pot of gold. As soon as he has it in his hands, there is a gleam in his face and a smile appears, not just on his face but on everyone’s there. They invite us to stay the night in the village but we have to tell him that we must push on. Everyone in the crowd has to come up and personally thank us and touch us before we leave.
We wave and off we go. Not five miles down the road we get a flat. This flat is the first of many to plague us for the next thousand miles. Flat tires come completely unexpected at any time, several in one day sometimes, but they’re not necessarily from hitting anything. The flat tire comes from all the thorn bushes we had hit in Northern Algeria 2000 miles before. Those tiny thorns get imbedded into the tires, maybe only an eighth inch long, but as the tire wears, they poke through into the tube. With literally thousands of these thorns in our tires, we have scores of flats ahead of us.
It is middle afternoon, so we elect to set up camp and finish the day, slowly cooking up some couscous, dates and curry. That night the stars were out like every night in the Sahara, with countless shooting stars falling from the sky. Night is the only time the skies are clear in this desert. IN the morning as the sun comes up, the wind starts blowing the sand in the air, making the skies so dirty you can look directly at the sun. In fact, most of the days in LA seem clearer than those in the Sahara.
We sit and talk about the trip so far, what we have done and seen, what we have been through. No we can laugh about situations like the one at the border check in Algeria. I got strip searched because they were convinced that we were smuggling money out of Algeria. Then there was the time I accidentally dropped the little Algerian flag that was sitting on the border guard’s desk. I hit is with the sleeve of my coat and the little flag, about 8″ tall, fell to the floor. I picked it up and put it back on his desk, but he said I was effacing the Algerian flag and threatened us with 20 years imprisonment. We got off with a $2 bribe. Now we can laugh about it. We remember the sight of the wild camel in the desert, and the beautiful camel herds driven by the Taureg known as the Blue Men. The Taureg have a blue hue to their skin. It comes from the dye that is used in the clothes that they wear all their life, and this blue color is actually impregnated into their skin. Many things we have learned because Sue speaks Arabic and everyone is as interested to know about the country we come from, as we are interested in theirs.
Many times in Northern Algeria, we would stop in cafes and have everyone ask countless questions about us. Sue is British and I would tell everyone I was British, since Algerians did not like French or Americans. One of the most common questions asked us in Algeria was, how could a woman run a country. In Muslim countries, women aren’t exactly encouraged towards political office, so naturally they would wonder.
That night we fell asleep dreaming of all the foods that we remember from before and hope to see again. The next morning we are up early before the sand starts to blow. The kids from the local tribe are there, all smiles, just sitting and watching us eat our breakfast. This morning, couscous mush with dates.
We are off to Sequa. With no exaggeration, I can say Sequa is a small town in the middle of nowhere. The road to Sequa is good. We are in third gear, at a 35 mph pace. We pull up to town and at the entrance there is a checkpoint. This means another stamp in our passport, and another bribe.
These checkpoints have become very routine. At each one they try to show us as much authority as they can. Only they have the power to let you pass and they let us know it. So far, approaching the checkpoints has been like coming up to a stop sign and getting off and having tea with some strangers. It has never been a threatening ordeal, until this time. We pull up to the tin guard shack, riddled with bullet holes. There are kids playing around the area, but they do not come any closer than the tin shack. Out walks this guy loosely holding his gun, waving it like a walking stick. He is drunk and we do not have a good feeling. We just want to get away fast. He approaches us, wanting our passports. I grab Sue’s and hand it to him, pointing out that we were from England, “Oh, England, good,” he says. “Oh you speak very good English,” I say, wanting to get onto his good side but not wanting to make conversation. He asks for my passport. I hurriedly give it to him and he does not notice that it is American, even though it is a different size and color. He is looking at it upside down. He mumbles about England and being good again, and stamps our passports allowing us to pass. Yes, he stamps mine upside down. This is found to be quite amusing at other checkpoints later on. He gestures with his gun which way is out of town, like there is only one road. We thank him and get the hell out of town.
We are on a roll; it’s only late morning and we hope to get to Bamako, capital of Mali by late afternoon. The last 50 miles into Bamako is a very good gravel road. The rock formation around us is very much like parts of southern Arizona. We round the corner and I see lots of movement about a half mile ahead of us. I slow down from 60 mps to 20 mph as we approach. There are a dozen vultures, each with a wingspan the width of the road and standing the height of a child, running down the road flapping their wings trying to take off. We take a few photos, and then get a glimpse of our first seagull over 1200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It puts a spark in us, making us realize that there is an end to this big sand box.
Up on the horizon we can see a big red wall of sand. We keep driving, knowing what we are going to get into. We drive until we are engulfed in all the san and I drive off the road for what seems to be a quarter of a mile, hoping that any traffic that comes by will stay on the road. We are in the middle of another sand storm, our second major sand storm. We are hoping that this one does not last as long as the first. That was in Southern Algeria and lasted two days.
It’s important to learn a few basic rules before you go into the Sahara, like do not follow tracks, always double check your compass (or GPS) and do not go anywhere in a sand storm.
Luckily, this one passes through like a summer shower going through Denver. We only sit there for 45 minutes or so. We wonder if we should pull a tent out and make some sort of shelter, even though it would not help much. Through much of the Sahara, Sue has worn her one-piece rain suit to ward away the constant blowing of sand. It has worked quite well, actually.
We wait for the sky to clear somewhat. I know which way it is back to the road because when we stopped I turned the bike 180 degrees and pointed it right to the way we wanted to go. This way I did not get disoriented in the middle of the storm.
We pull into Bamako and head towards a major hotel. Bamako has a population of well over a million and is the first sign of civilization, or anything western, for a very long time.
Now, you have to remember that we are following the actual Paris-Dakar route and all these villages, and of course major towns, know that the racers will be coming through and spending money in their towns. They are all looking for the racers and their crews. We pull up into this western or European style hotel, we look through the glass front doors and see out the back a gorgeous blue swimming pool.
All the workers run out to meet us and yell in French “premier, premier,” wanting to know if we are the first in the race. We do not say anything; we let them assume what they want. We get off our bikes with 1/8″ of sand and dust on us, then pull off our helmets and walk in their nice new shiny lobby, sit down at the table next to the swimming pool. We have at least four people waiting on us. We order two beers and down them in seconds. Now all the people are gathering around us and we can hear the hordes of people asking each other if we are the first in the race.
We still have not really said a word. We order two more beers and this time the beers come with the manager, obviously a man of European descent with a little more knowledge about the race and when the racers are supposed to be through. He sets the beers down and asks us where we are going. We tell him we are going to Dakar. Even he does not know for sure, and he asks us cautiously if we are part of the Paris-Dakar race. We tell him no. “Oh,” he says and immediately wants to throw us out. But with all the onlookers, he knows that it would not be good for him, so we ask him if there is a campground in town. He tells us where it is, then bends down and whispers to us, please could we go. We get up and wave to everybody, thank him very much for the beer, shake his hand and head out the door towards the campground.
We arrive at the campground where other travelers are gathered. We set up the tent and begin to meet these other people, and try to get information on the road to Keyes, the little town just inside Senegal. In the campground are mostly Germans, a couple of Swiss and a few Italians all in trucks. No one is on a motorcycle. We ask about the road to Keyes, and they all say that it is deep sand. It is a 400 miles track of sometimes axle deep sand on their four wheel drives. Experience has taught us that a 400 miles track of axle deep sand will take us anywhere from 7 to 20 days. The racers are less than a week behind us now, and we still want to get to Dakar before they do. We are going to have to look at a different alternative.
Our options are the 400 mile sand track, or the cross-country train from Bamako up to the border of Senegal, through the little town of Keyes and then on to Tambacounda. We realize now we have only on option (and we’ve worked hard not to get to this point), if we want to get to Dakar before the racers. So we opt to head down to the train station in the morning to see what the schedules are. Earlier today we had met a local man who owns a farm just outside of Bamako. He invites us to the farm, so we accept and go with him that night to set up camp in his yard.
We get out to his ranch just at dusk. He gives us quick tour of his farm and shows us first hand damage of what the hippopotamus can do over night. That evening is a very peaceful one. There are many, many stars out and it is very quiet right near the Niger River.
We get up early the next morning to find some the workers have set some vegetables just outside of our tent. These people have been incredibly friendly and helpful. Mali has a per capita income of approximately $250 a year, and for these people to continually give things they can’t really afford to give is pretty amazing.
During the day we ask around to try and find out who had given us the vegetables so we can return the favor, but no one knew where they came from.
The owner of the farm, Moussa, said he wanted to put on a big fee for all his workers in honor of our being there. We accept only if we can provide the food. We get a list of what we need from the market and we plan to go to the market right after the train station.
After a big breakfast, we head into town to the train station. There is already a line of 50 people; all bunched around one little guy who is selling the tickets. We stand in line for about and hour and a half. We got there about 8am and by 9:30 we are talking to the first guy who will reserve our tickets. After we reserve, them, he tells us to go to the next line. By noon we are at the end of that line which is to confirm that we have reserved tickets. Now we go to one more line where we will apparently pay for the tickets. We spend a half hour bargaining on ticket prices. We know what the locals pay and don’t plan on paying tourist prices. By the time we get our price it is 4 pm and we have just enough time to go to the market to get our stuff for that night’s meal.
That evening all the usual questions are asked of us – what is our country like, what do we do, how fast does the bike go, are we married and how many kids do we have. People are always quite disappointed to find out Sue is 36 years old and has no kids. All the women are very, very sorry for her.
We are told to show up at the train station no later than 7 am because the train will eave at 7:30 am the next morning. So we go to bed early that night and get up at 5 am, have a little breakfast, pull up the tent, and pack everything on the bike and head into town. We only have about 12 kilometers to go. It is a sand track, but still will only take us 15-20 minutes.
We lag a little at breakfast and finally get away at almost quarter to sever figuring we still have plenty of time to get to the train. We pack up quick and say our goodbyes to our friends and head off towards the train. About half way to town, my front tire goes flat. Immediately I have visions of missing the train by minutes and not seeing another train for a week. This would mean we would miss the end of the race. I am so mad I get off the bike pull my helmet off and throw it into the desert as far as I can. Sue, sensing that I am a little upset, does not say a word but just walks out and retrieves my helmet. By the time she gets back, I have already got the front tire off and the tube out. Of course I find more thorns, so I pop my nearest tube in, get the hand pump out and start pumping. It is early in the morning, so it is only maybe 75 degrees out. No matter how hard I pull, I cannot get the tire to bead all the way around. I figure I have enough air in there to keep it off the rim and I ride it into town just to get to the train and fix it later.
Riding the bike in sand with an unbeaded front tire is quite a challenge. We arrive at the train station just past 7:30 am. We notice the train has not left yet, in fact, we notice all the luggage and pallets have not even begun to be loaded. I inquire where and when do I load my bike. I am told to just have a seat and wait, that they will come and get us. We notice these huge bails of what seems to be cotton in burlap bags. We form fit them to our bodies like you would your pillow and we have comfortable seats to sit back and watch the mayhem while the train is being loaded.
It is getting close to noon, the sun is straight up in the sky and now it is pushing 90 degrees. There has been a progressive odor coming from the whole train station for the last 2 or 3 hours. We finally figure out why some of the locals walk by us and smile and laugh. Our pillows of cotton are actually dried camel dung that is being shipped to Mauritania. Dried camel dung is used instead of firewood all throughout the Sahara, and it is shipped to Mauritania because nearly 50% of the country is sand dunes.
They come to us and tell us it is time to load the bike, but it will cost another $14 US to load it on to the train. I tell him I have already bought my ticket for the train. Yes, he says, I understand but we will need to charge another $14 to load it on the train. I tell him I can load it myself. “Oh no, it’s not possible,” he says. Now after starting the day with a flat tire and sitting on bales of dried camel dung waiting for these guys to load my bike, there is no way I am going to pay more to get in on the train. I look around and see a couple of planks. The locals are laughing and clapping and helping me put the bike on. The foreman does not have a smile on his face, realizing he just lost his money.
Finally the whistle blows and everybody frantically throws on the last few bits. It is now 3 pm and it looks like the train is going to be heading out. Actually, it is almost 4:30 pm before we start moving.
The first village we stop at for over an hour, it is enough time for me to get my cooker fired up and make dinner. A crowd gathers around my cooker, they are amazed at how that little tin pot can boil water.
AT each little village stop, local women have plenty of fresh fruit for sale. For less than a dollar you can get as much fruit as you can eat. We do not get much sleep that night, stopping and going in each village. We are amazed that the little villages would be wide awake at 3 am, trying to sell you their fruits and nuts.
There is no border check between Mali and Senegal. The train arrives in Tambacounda about mid-day the next day. We get off the train and head for the car where the bike is. Here I am told that it will cost me to get it off the train. Well, now we are stuck.
My bike is on the train and I have no way of getting it off. So I hire about ten people to manhandle it down to the ground for me, and of course it cost me! I push my bike off to the side, and of course the tire is still flat. I pull the tube out and it has several thorns that are coming through the front tire. I completely tear the front tire off and spend the next hour digging little thorns out. I patch my only tube, which now has almost 8 patches on it, and put it back in. By the time I am starting to pump we have maybe a dozen or more people around watching. One man comes out of the crowd and says he knows how to pump. I am not about to argue with the guy since it is about 95 degrees and there is no shade to be had. After 25 minutes of pumping and three or four other guys changing off to help pump, my front tire is now inflated and I pop it back on my bike. I thank everybody and they are all glad they could help.
Now we are ready for the road, but I know coming into Senegal we have paperwork to do. We go in search of the police station to find out what paperwork needs to be done, what bribes have to be paid, what stamps need to be put in our passports. We find the police station and they tell us they have no paperwork to do, not until we get to Dakar. I ask him again in amazement and he says no paperwork here, welcome to Senegal. We are quite amazed at his answer and have another new outlook on this little part of Africa.
Going across the Sahara, I think, would be tougher if there were no border crossings. Not that we were happy to get to Niger after Algeria, but when we got to the Niger border, we were happy that we were getting out of Algeria. We had a new fresh look at another country and said to ourselves, it can’t all be like Algeria. Of course, these thoughts repeat themselves again when you get to the Niger-Mali border.
Back in Tambacounda, Senegal is the beginning of the pavement. From here to Dakar is between 600 and 700 miles of good pavement. We are beginning to feel like the trip is over.
We know that the racers are now about 5 days behind us and we have plenty of time to get to Dakar. We meet a priest in a catholic mission and he takes us in because we look in need of a place to rest. This is our first real shower with running water for well over a month. We would always take sponge baths through the desert conserving water whenever possible. It sure felt good to take a shower.
It is towards the end of our trip across the Sahara, following the Paris-Dakar route. We were staying in Tambacounda, Senegal, with some priests who graciously took us in, sheltered and fed us. Here we had the opportunity to take our first shower in a very long time. After the hot and dusty Sahara, this was heaven. Tambacounda was the first place where we could find things like yogurt and butter – things we had all but forgotten about in the past two and a half months.
After spending a night with the priests, we took our time saying goodbye and thanking them for their hospitality. We knew we were about 4 or 5 days ahead of the Paris-Dakar racers, and only 300 miles from Dakar, so we had time to find one of Sue’s teachers from her childhood in Beirut. We were heading for the village of Kedougou, just north of the border of the communist country of Guinea. The village was near the Gambian River where we saw many hippos, water buffalo, baboons, monkeys and antelope. In western Africa, there are no more elephants or giraffes.
The road out of town was a good gravel road, which turned into a track just wide enough for a car. We stopped for lunch after about 20 kilometers on the road. We sat under what we called baobab tree – a huge tree found all over Africa. The trunk is about 15 feet in diameter, but the height of the tree barely reaches 50 feet. They provide lots of good shad. The area around Tambacounda has very few trees and bushes, but as we travel away, we encounter more and more vegetation. These trees are welcome relief from the heat of the sun.
We find the village of Kedougou, but Sue’s teacher is no longer here. We planned just a one-day trip here and back, but the villagers were so pleased to have visitors, we couldn’t leave. We had a really nice welcoming, good drinking water and some beautiful food. It was incredible to find out that these people living in the middle of nowhere were up on the current events and worldwide news. We stayed and caught up on the rest of the world.
The next morning, we left early heading back to Tambacounda. We were anxious to get to Dakar before the racers. On the way back we again crossed the Gambia River. The bridge over is made of railroad ties, but they’re placed the long way. We opted to get off the bike and clutch it in first gear to get it across. It would be tragic to lose the bike in the river this late in the game.
We are on a two-lane dirt track, looking for a village called Simenti. We were thinking of having lunch beside the same baobab tree we passed before, but as we came up to it, we say two lionesses – both the size of my bike. As we approached they just got up and wandered off into the bush and disappeared. It made for quite an exciting moment!
In Simenti we stopped to tell the villagers that we saw these animals. Everybody ran out to fetch their goats and cattle, and see to their safety. It was late in the afternoon by now, and the villagers invited us to stay in one of their bamboo huts. It was difficult, but we had to tell them we were pushing on to Tambacounda.
Back in town, we fueled up again. Here fuel was cheap by African standards. My ten-gallon tank cost us just over $40 to fill.
From Tambacounda to Dakar, the road is paved almost the entire way. Once we got on the pavement, we felt like we were in a big parking lot – there was no challenge to this anymore.
A normal traveling day in Africa would get us 50 miles. A normal day was from sun up to sun down – we never traveled after dark. Our worst day was only 4 miles and if we did 100 miles, we felt like we were flying!
Our travel time was cut down significantly because of the difficult in getting things done. In Niger, we were required to stop in every tow, find the police and get the “required” stamp in our passports. Many times this meant leaving our passports overnight and picking them up the next morning before heading out of town. Each stamp in our passport meant a bribe. It took 26 pages in my passport to get through the Sahara, and each stamp required a bribe.
If the police have your passport, your options are few. You can’t leave town, and it is often illegal to camp anywhere but the police run campgrounds.
We did not buy a “photo permit” in Mali, wondering who would enforce it. We found out that being the only white faces on motorcycles in a small village in Africa made us the center of attention. If anyone saw us with a camera, they would run off to the police. They would earn a reward for turning us in, and we would have to pay a fine if we c could not produce a “photo permit.”
We stopped at another baobab tree and camped for the night. We had been warned about the wildlife before, but we just wanted to be out by ourselves. When we got up in the morning, we found about 2 dozen kids watching us. I asked one of the little kids if he wanted a ride on the motorbike. I ended up with about 15 kids on my bike! Later, when I looked at the pictures Sue took, it looked like the bike’s framed was twisted pretty badly, just from the weight of the kids sitting on the bags, the tank, the fenders and the seat behind me. It was good fun!
We gave the kids a ride or two before we hit the road for Dakar. After leaving them, we rode about 2 kilometers before we came upon a crowd of people in the road. We slowed down and found a truck had hit a snake of some kind – it was about 4 inches in diameter and at least as long as the road was wide. The locals were out there scraping it up off the highway. Being not very fond of snakes, we just putted on through and kept heading down the road.
From here to Dakar was a pretty easy ride. I expected to see the Atlantic Ocean at any time. The road we were on would take us right to the Atlantic and then we would ride north along the cost into Dakar. When we actually saw the ocean, we were overwhelmed. It was quite a feeling to know we had crossed this big sandbox. I actually tried to drive my bike into the ocean, but it got stuck in the soft sand. So we just got off and walked into the water.
After recovering our senses, we realized we were hungry. We knew Dakar would have anything we wanted, so off we went. We encountered the first traffic we had seen in two and a half months – more cars in one block than we saw in our whole ride through the desert. We also encountered a stoplight – a real oddity to us. Our immediate reaction was “get me out of here! I want to go back into the desert.”
We found a cheap little motel in town. Dakar is a beautiful city – very European. Our room was a good value – about $6.50 a night. We parked the bike under the motel so it could be watched after. Our first stop was a little Lebanese restaurant, which became our favorite hangout. We spent a couple of weeks in Dakar, wandering around the shops, bartering with the shopkeepers. You know things are getting serious with the shopkeepers when they bring out the rugs and the tea. I made it a point to make them understand we were not tourists and we wanted local price. We told them that when the tourists on the buses came, we’d stop negotiations and come back when the tourists had gone. We made some good friends among the vendors.
The Paris-Dakar race actually ends in a little town called Lac Rose, or Red Lake, about 20 kilometers northwest of Dakar. We had no trouble finding the catch teams of the racers, and we could monitor the progress of the race.
The track around Lac Rose is about 5 miles long. The racers come into town between a couple of sand dunes and circle the lake so all the spectators can get a look. The track is staked off for the racers only. We had a couple of days to find a good spot to watch the finish. We watched the photographers set up their cameras, trying to figure out their best angles and such. On the day of the finish I was putting around the staked off area of the track on my bike. I thought to myself, “what the hell, I’m going for it!” The photographers weren’t expecting the first finishers for a couple of hours, so when I smoked by them, I saw them scrambling for their cameras. When they realized I wasn’t one of the racers, I got a few dirty looks, but I had fun! That was the year I went over the finish line of the Paris-Dakar race first.
When the real racers came in, there was no doubt. The helicopters flying above gave us our first indication that someone was coming. The end of the race was actually pretty uneventful. Everybody congregated in an area about the size of a football field, and after a couple of hours we all filed in to Dakar for what I thought was going to be a big party. Gaston River was there – he wouldn’t let me ride his bike, but he let me sit on it. He thought we were a little crazy doing what we did two-up, but he signed my tank anyway.
We rode into town single file with the BMW racers, so we felt a part of the whole thing. When we got into town, all the bikes and cars and trucks that were part of the race disappeared. Instead of the parties and festivities we expected, the racers just loaded up their vehicles onto a freighter that was waiting for them and hopped on a charter plane for Europe. The race finished about 5 pm and by 8 pm, Dakar was deserted. The locals had a hell of a party, though and we got caught up in that.
This was the night I got my passport stolen. I went to the American Embassy to get it replaced and I was asked if I wanted to wait for that one to show up or did I want another one. She told me that there’s no trash in Africa. Things don’t get thrown away, and always show up again sometime.
I asked for a new one, since that one was about to expire anyway. Sure enough, 2 days later my passport showed up with a little kid looking for the reward money. We took him to dinner at our favorite Lebanese restaurant, but that wasn’t exactly the reward he was looking for.
It took us almost a full day to do all the meaningless paperwork required to get a new passport. There is no carbon paper, so any form needed in duplicate or triplicate had to be filled out 2 or 3 times.
We weren’t ready to go back to America yet. I was completely out of money – I didn’t have enough money to get my bike out of custody in the US. After 2 solid days of bartering with the airlines (everything in Africa is negotiable) we settled on a price of $8/kilo for the bike and $450 apiece for us to fly from Dakar to New York.
While we were in Dakar, we indulged our taste buds in things we had not had in a long time. We were a little amazed at the prices – everything was shipped in from Europe. One morning I had a craving for cereal and milk. We found a small jar of cream and enough cereal for 2 bowls and spent $15!
We did a little exploring, since we spent a couple weeks in the area. In the little village of Mbour, we met some friends of our Lebanese cooks. We went to visit their potato and peanut farm. They showed us around their farm and village. They used water from the Gambia River for irrigation, but could only irrigate about 20 acres. This is a large farm for Senegal. The pump could only pump using partial pressure, because there were so many holes in the hose. I suggested patching the holes would increase the pressure and improve the flow. Everyone thought it was a good idea, but to this day, I’m sure nothing has been done.
When we crossed the border into Senegal we were told we didn’t need to do any paperwork or pay any bribes. We found out they saved all that for leaving Dakar. I needed a stamp that said I entered and left Senegal with my bike. It was going to cost me $80 – basically a bribe. I wasn’t about to pay it. I didn’t have kind words for the guy behind the desk and I told him I’d find someone to sign my papers. Everywhere I went I was told he was the man to talk to. I went to the race organizers (while they were still in town), explained what I was doing there and why, and got the appropriate papers. Of course, the man behind the desk found out and was a bit put out at missing an $80 bribe. We had a few tense moments our last few days in dealing with the local police.
Flying the bike out of Africa was an interesting event. Our price was based on a per kilo deals. $8 per kilo – that’s over $1600 for the bike alone. I didn’t have the money. I came up with a plan to disassemble the bike and ask people who were heading to New York to carry a piece so we could get it back for free. Since we didn’t feel that lucky, we decided to try the normal route.
We flew the bike out the day before we left. I had planned that the bike would go through it’s customs check before I go there, so that when I did arrive, we could just hop on the bike and ride away. At the airport we had to load the bike on the plane. Our paperwork was done – we just had to pay. Though the bike was sitting right next to a scale, the guy behind the counter asked us “How much does it weight?” I said “100 kilos.” They shook their heads – they weren’t going to buy that – but I said “Look, it says R80 on the side. That means only 80cc – a small scooter.” They wrote it down and we managed to get it back for $800. A lot more than we wanted to pay, but a deal regardless.
They wanted to store the bike and load it up themselves, but we chose to push the bike through the airport, load it ourselves on a pallet and stand there and watch as they put the pallet on the plane. It was the only way we could rest assured that the bike would make it to New York.
Back in Dakar, friends we had made said their goodbyes, giving us trinkets and such from their shops. Our Lebanese friends tried to give us a free meal, but we knew they were poor, so we left a generous tip.
Up early the next morning – our plane is scheduled to leave at 8:00 am. We are at the airport with time to spare, and at 8:00 we hear our plane has been delayed, but is en-route from Kenya. 9:00 – The plane is in flight and should be here within the hour. 10:00 – the plane should be here within the hour. At 9:00 pm we finally got on the plane, and we took off at about 10:00 pm. Pretty quick for Africa!
I spent 10 months in Europe and Africa – 3 and half months in the Sahara alone. My original plan was to ride all the way to South Africa, but after experiencing the expense and the time it takes to go anywhere or do anything in Africa, I knew it would take a minimum of 10 months traveling time to do it properly. I just didn’t have the money.
In some ways, I was happy to be out of Africa. Of course I was looking forward to some good food and water. I had lost almost 30 pounds.
We experienced a bit of culture shock, arriving back in America. My plan to just hop on my bike and ride out of customs was spoiled by one thing – Sunday. For 10 months I hadn’t paid much attention to weekends, and our arrival just happened to coincide with a Sunday. We had to find a cheap motel in New York – we spent $120 for a cheap little run down motel room not even as nice as a Motel 6. We saw the carpet on the floor and stairs and would have been content pitching the sleeping bags right there, it was so plush!
As we were checking in, we say a sign behind the desk clerk that said – “Pizza – We Deliver.” We asked him how that worked – “do they just bring the pizza to us?” He looked at us like we were from the moon. It was amazing to us that we could just call and someone would bring us food. I asked the clerk if we could borrow his phone, and he told us we had one in our room. This was starting to sound like a pretty nice hotel! So we got to our room and called the number. It rang once or twice and a guy picked it up on the other side. I could tell just by the way he answered that he would comprehend whatever I told him. A completely new concept to me after Africa! When he asked what kind of pizza I wanted, I was stumped. I couldn’t remember how to order a pizza! After figuring out what kind we wanted, I ordered a six-pack of beer, too. After hanging up the phone, Sue asked, “What did he say?” In amazement, I told here that this guy was going to bring us pizza and beer in a half hour! Sure enough, a half hour later we heard a knock on the door and there was the guy with our pizza! WE were giddy! The delivery guy asked us where we were from. WE just told him we were from the Midwest.
The Sahara is an amazing place for a motorcycle ride. Imagine a sandbox the size of the US, and you’ll have an idea of what you might encounter. It’s not just sand, it’s many different forms of rock, including the Hoggart Mountains at 10,000 feel in the middle of the desert. It does snow up there, but doesn’t accumulate. WE ran across beach-like sand, and we came upon quicksand. Quicksand is like round little ball bearings that lock into each other. The harder you hit it driving through, the harder it is going to grab you. When you pop over a hill you can see a river of this quicksand. You can tell by the color where it is. Also by the abandoned cars and trucks that get stuck there. Often we couldn’t do this two up on the motorbike. I would have to get off, park the bike and walk across and set up a section or route that I would want to take, very similar to someone getting ready to take a hill climb. Sue would get off and just walk across. I would come back and hit it wide open in 2nd gear and I could normally do about 50 yards, depending on the consistency before I got bogged down. Then we would dig out and push it the rest of the way through.
We came upon two sections of desert that were between 40 and 60 miles of tabletop-flat, hard packed desert. There was nothing in the horizon, no tree, no mountain, no hill, nothing. It was quite unique to see the ground flow into sky with nothing obstructing the horizon. It can mess up your depth perception, because you don’t know how far away anything is. We would drive up to rock formations which we thought were mountains, but ended up being the size of a truck. In fact, we came upon a /2 BMW frame that had been burned out. WE first thought it was a town or village.
When the sun comes up in the Sahara, the wind starts blowing. When the sun disappears, the wind dies. All the noise was absorbed by the sand, there were no lights except for the shooting stars that lit up the sky every 30 seconds. It was quite a place to camp. It was amazingly dark, and the quiet was deafening.
Going through the southern part of the Sahara, we started to see a very consistent increase in vegetation. Nearing the Gambia or Niger River, we found lush green within 20 yards of the river, and that was it.
I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who has a little experience in motorcycling. If y0u do go, expect some rough times and plan on some extra time to deal with the government agencies. When traveling through underdeveloped countries, the people are very curious and helpful. The governments can be difficult to deal with.
Generally speaking, people are the same all over the world. When I travel, I take with me photos from my parent’s farm where I grew up. The people I’ve encountered were always very interested in where we came from and how things are done in America.
Traveling in Africa, with just my motorcycle and my abilities, was a great learning experience. It was a trip of a lifetime, and one I’ll never forget!