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!
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.
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.
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.
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.