Highs and Lows

Since the last update and the trials and tribulations that paddling on the Niger River entailed, I’ve hit the bottom and (fortunately) bounced right back….

Having hung up the paddle and sold the pirogue in Kouroussa, Guinea, we (that’s me and Lars Bengtsson) cycled towards Bamako, Mali. The two weeks on the river had taken their toll and once the adrenalin I’d been solidly running on for those two weeks finally left my body, I got ill. I was more tired than I’d ever felt. Mentally and physically. My head could cope but my body didn’t – my stomach which had been dodgy, on and off for months, rebelled. I felt awful. For the first time I was tempted to stop cycling and get a lift. I’m glad I didn’t.

Cliffs en route!

After a much needed rest in Bamako, I was beginning to recover and the ride on to Djenne was more bearable. No easier mind – the harmattan wind was blowing hard against me. But at least my stomach didn’t hurt any more and the bloated, 5-months-pregnant, look had subsided.

In Djenne a friend came to visit and I hung up the bike for a few weeks. A chance to explore Mali, travelling as the locals do, was the perfect medicine. A month later and I was feeling revived, rejuvenated, invigorated, raring to ride….

I looked forward to the solitude of the road – for the first time in five months I would be on my own – and to camping out under the stars after an exhausting day’s cycle.

Donkey in the way!

The five days it took to reach Burkina Faso’s capital were great! I loved it! Loved it despite the wind changing direction and trying it’s hardest to blow me back to Mali and when that failed, whipping up dusty tornadoes that swept across the road and deposited sand and dirt over my sweaty body. I was thriving on the challenge of the bumpy tracks and monotonous surroundings of the Sahel. I was enjoying engaging with the Burkinabe (as the locals call themselves), at the border, in the bar and over a breakfast coffee.

Paddling down the river

I’ve been enjoying every day since I started cycling again and I haven’t been ill either. I can’t help but think the two are inextricably linked. Of course, I’m going to enjoy myself more if I’m not ill. But I also think that part of the reason I was ill in the first place was not just due to physical tiredness, but mental exhaustion too.

So over the past few weeks I’ve learned a lot. But most importantly, I’ve learned that I need to continue to take regular breaks and do different things besides just cycling. Not only do I need to rest my body, my mind needs a break too.

Sunset

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Paddling on the Niger River

Take On Africa is about my journey cycling from the UK to Cape Town. However, it’s not just about the cycling. It’s about exploring the countries I travel through – exploring the people, the wildlife, the landscapes. And what could be a better way to explore the Niger river that flows over 4000km through West Africa, than by buying a local pirogue (wooden boat) and paddling down part of it?


I chose the section between Faranah and Kouroussa in Guinea, in the upper reaches of the river. Here I would get a chance to paddle through the Haut Niger National Park and hopefully see some interesting wildlife.

I saw plenty of fascinating wildlife: warthogs, antelope, duikers, snakes, vervet monkeys, baboons, chimpanzees and lots of hippos. And that’s not to mention the hundreds of species of birds.

The river trip was less a wildlife viewing experience however, but an action-packed, exciting river challenge that saw us (me and fellow cycle tourer Lars Bengtsson) negotiating rapids and shallow waters with varying degrees of success. On more than one occasion we thought we might have to abort the trip early. But we made it relatively unscathed!

Without passing a single village on the two-week and 350km paddle, I spent each night camping out on large rocks or the banks of the river. The freedom you experience of this kind of wild camping is intoxicating.

Each evening I would first put up my tent and then set about cooking on an open fire. Dinner would then usually be devoured inside the tent in order to avoid the bothersome sand-flies and tsetse flies. Laying down to rest I would then sweat for a few hours, the rocks on which we pitched our tents still radiating heat from the daily exposure to the sun’s rays. Eventually, the temperature would cool and I would drift off to sleep to the sounds of the river – crickets, frogs, fishes splashing.


But those two amazing weeks on the Niger river are over now – It’s back on the bike for now. Although, travelling through Mali I shall continue to follow the river’s path towards the fabled city of Timbuctoo.

If you would like to read more about my journey down the Niger river, I have posted a detailed day-to-day account of the trials and tribulations experienced on my website Take On Africa.

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Six Month’s On the Road to Freetown

I’ve now been on the road for six months – I can barely believe it! And after six months and 9,000km I’m in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

My last note was about the Sahara and unquantifiable amounts of sand. I have since then travelled through five countries over hugely varying terrain and differing geographical regions: through the flat, arid sahel and mangrove swamps of Senegal, along the river of the Gambia, through primary forest divided by many rivers in Guinea-Bissau, the green highlands of Guinea and down into the tropical forests of Sierra Leone.

The roads have been equally varied: from smooth, freshly laid asphalt, to gravel, to bumpy dirt tracks and sandy lanes and on occasion across country on barely recognizable footpaths.

Needless to say, a lot has happened: encounters with countless animals, insects mostly; termites, spiders, ants, mosquitos; but also monitor lizards, snakes, monkeys, chimpanzees, mice. Encounters with friendly locals, corrupt officials, screaming kids; fortunately I’ve not bumped into any rebels or mercenaries as feared.

At times I’ve been so happy, feeling so lucky, to be undertaking this journey. At other times, I’ve be tired, ill, overwhelmed. There have been tears and anger and despair.

But all of this adds up into one amazing adventure. I have never once wished to be back home, never wished to be elsewhere, never thought about giving up. Without the tough times, the good times wouldn’t be so great.

Looking forward to what the next six months will bring… I’m headed for Mali and will no doubt soon be cursing the heat and sand again!

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Much more than sand

Take on Africa – latest update from Nouakchott, Mauritania – crossing the desert.

For the best part of three weeks I’ve now been in the desert… the great Saharan wilderness. Perhaps wildness is an equally applicable term to use. And over the three weeks I’ve been cycling south, everyday crossing another small section of desert, each section of desert different to the last. There’s the flat stony hammada spanning to the horizon, the winding roads around rocky escarpments, the canyon running parallel to the coast, the windswept beaches and towering cliffs of the coastline, the shifting dunes of white, golden and burnt umber, green palms and round wooden huts along dried-up riverbeds – small oases of life in this dry, hot place. But one thing is common is all these desert landscapes…. sand.

Desert & Bike

And sand it turns out, it the inevitable, unavoidable bane of the desert cycle tourer. Wind too when not cycling, intensifies the problems. But wind can be the cycle tourer’s friend – it was the help hand of a tailwind that made the journey across the sahara so much fun.

Sand really does get everywhere. And there’s nothing you can do about it. It blows into your tent at night and deposits on your face and in your sleeping bag. You breathe it in as you sleep and it clogs up your nose. It sticks to your dirty, damp clothes when you stop for a break and sit down. It adds a certain ‘crunch’ to your breakfast, lunch and dinner as it blows onto your bread or mixes with your pasta. Attempts to remove it are futile – it sticks to your sweaty hands and all that happens is you brush it to some other part of your clothes or body.

Dunes

In the end, you give up, accept that the sand is here to stay. But afterall, what would the desert be without it? And in any case, you know that at the end of it all, you’ll check into a hotel and be able to jump into the shower. Washing the sand down the drain. But never washing away the memories the desert conjures up in your mind and feelings it evokes. Like a campfire burning through the night, with the embers still hot in the morning it is easy to restart the fire – your memories may fade once you leave the desert, but they’ll never disappear and occasionally, some random event or sight or smell will re-awaken the memory of those days cycling through the Sahara.

The desert – so much sand. The desert – so much more than sand.

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When in Morocco…

Take On Africa – Latest update from Erfoud, on the edge of the desert in Morocco

I arrived in Morocco during Ramadan, which as a touring cyclist I thought could be somewhat tricky. During the hours from sunrise to sunset, which are also the hours I’d be on the road, no-one eats or drinks and it would be very rude to be seen eating or drinking while those around me are abstaining. It’s not just that no-one eats or drinks in the daytime during Ramadan, but everyone’s daily routine changes entirely to accommodate this – with many shops and restaurants only opening up once the sun goes down.

The solution to this for me turned out to be very simple – when in Morocco during Ramadan, do as the Moroccans do. So I turned in the bike for ten days, fasted during the day and then, with the friend’s and families I met and stayed with, feasted during the night. Indeed, it is behind closed doors within the confines of the family home after dark that real life happens and I feel privileged to have been treated as one of the family and can only hope that one day I can repay the kindness, generosity and hospitality I received during this time and in fact have continued to receive long after the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr in every town I have passed.

As a touring cyclist, the topic of food is continually on the mind – I’m burning so many calories when cycling, that I can dream up any combination and quantity of foods to eat throughout the day and into the evening. During Ramadan, the topic of food is continually on everybody’s mind. Having fasted for a few days however, what I think is harder than not eating during the day is not drinking anything. No I’m not just talking about a beer or a glass of wine, but not even a sip of water. Up in the Middle Atlas where I was, it was relatively cool, but I cannot imagine how those living on the edges of the desert where I’m now resting up could manage.

To some extent, those that continually live in this region have become accustomed to the heat and are certainly able to endure it far easier than a fair-haired girl from temperate England. When cycling from Er-Rachidia to Erfoud on the edge of the desert I had company from a Moroccan student and fellow cycling enthusiast, who had nothing better to do that day that join me for a ride. Over the 40km that we cycled together, I consumed about two litres of water. He wouldn’t touch a drop. And then he turned round and cycled home, still without water. He said it was good training for his body ready for when he competes in races in the mountains. I just don’t know how he did it.

This year was unusually hot in the south and it turns out that many people did ‘cheat’ and end up drinking and eating a little something during the hottest hours. Quite frankly, who can blame them.

Me, if I’m thirsty, I’m going to drink water. I’m suffering enough with the heat as it is, without compounding the problem.

strolling across the sands

storms coming in

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From Rain to Shine

Take On Africa: Latest update from Cordoba, Spain

It’s now a month since I left England on that dull grey, wet day. In that month, I’ve seen and done so much, the time has just flown by – I can hardly believe it. The cycling is going great – better than expected – I’ve now pedalled over 1500 miles since leaving home and am now accustomed to cycling day-in, day-out come rain or shine.

Trujillo Plaza Mayor

1500 miles brought me to a pretty town on a hill in the hot, arid Spanish Extremadura, Trujillo. As I’ve been progressing steadily south through Central Spain, the thermometer reading has steadily risen -I happened to see the weather on television today and it’s topping 38 degrees here.

The heat is stifling in the afternoon and makes cycling almost unbearable, especially when having to tackle a particularly steep uphill section where I can’t even go fast enough to create a small breeze. The simple solution I have found is to just not cycle then. There’s clearly a reason the Spanish have a siesta and I’ve certainly found out why! So from now on, it’s up before dawn to be cycling in the cool mornings, the added benefit is also some gorgeous sunrises. Then as the evening draws in, I can get back on the bike to cover a few more miles until sunset. It also means I get to relax and see some lovely little towns along the way, with old churches, impressive castles and remains of fortified walls. I can also enjoy an ice-cold beer or ice-cream in the plaza mayor (the central square in every Spanish town), which makes a refreshing change from my bottled water which is warm again within ten minutes of re-filling from a fountain in town.

It’s certainly not to say it’s been hot and dry all the way though. There have been a number of wet days; first in France and then again in northern Spain where the weather is known to be variable.

Fortunately I had my Marmot waterproof jacket (and I love the lime green colour – makes me visible in the driving rain too) which I’m really impressed with.

In my Marmot waterproof jacket

It’s kept me dry from the rain and even when pushing hard to make town or campsite it’s claims for breathability have been put to the test and definitely passed. The other great thing is it packs down so small, I hardly know it’s in my bag – so I don’t mind carrying it with me over the next few months, when chances are I won’t need it (not if the current weather in central Spain is anything to go by!).

I’ve just arrived in Cordoba and shall be taking it a little slower, giving me chance to re-organise, ready for the crossing over into Africa and the ensuing challenges to be met there. I’m can hardly wait!

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She’s off again!

Helen Lloyd, our sponsored endurance cyclist of ‘takeonafrica’ fame, will be departing these shores en route to France from Poole ferry terminal on Monday 20th July. If anyone would like to come along and join the rest of us to wish her well, we are meeting Helen at the terminal building at 1130 am. Please come along and support this unique and worthwhile endeavour.

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She’s off!

Helen Lloyd of ‘www.takeonafrica.com’ has finally set off on her marathon two year journey. Due into Poole on Friday 17th July, Helen has left home in Norfolk on a short warm up before catching the ferry  for the Continent on Monday 20th. We will be waving Helen off on Monday along with the local press, local well wishers and friends and family. We wish Helen all the best on her long journey and look forward to her frequent updates on both her website and here on the webtogs blog.

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