Stats Update from Chiapas, Mexico

Time for a quick update on how the Take On The Americas trip is going, now that the journey has passed the 10,000km mark. I suppose the best way to do it is with a few numbers…

Distance cycled: 9222km
Distance sailed: 725km
Distance travelled on bus: 425km

Total nights: 165
Nights camping: 118
Nights in paid accommodation: 34

No. of cycling days: 122

Countries cycled: 3 (Canada, US, Mexico
US states: 6 (Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California)
Mexico states: 7

Lowest/Highest altitude: -226ft / 9600ft (-69m/2926m)
Most km in one day: 136km
Coldest night/hottest day: -11C/+30C* (12F/86F)

Bridges/roads slept under: 5
Firestations slept at: 1
No. of times disturbed by men with machetes/men with guns/mountain lions: 3

No. of times cautioned/warned by warden/police: 2

Brake cables replaced: 1
Bottom brackets replaced: 1
Tyres used: 5
Punctures: 22*

Bears/coyotes seen: 6 / 3
Sealions/sharks seen: 1 / 1
Whales seen: 31*
Tarantulas seen: 3

No of times fallen off bike: 0(me), 1(Lars)

No of burgers eaten by Lars: lost count
No. of Thai red curries eaten: 6
No. of tortillas eaten: 173*

No. of lucid dreams: 5

No. of beers: 182
No. of glasses of wine: 31

Average distance cycled: 75.5km/day (not including rest days)
Average distance cycled inc. rest days: 55.9km

Average km/beer: 50.7km/beer (compared to Take On Africa trip of 24.5km/beer!)

If you want to read more about the trip, best go to my blog.

(Photo courtesy of Lars Bengtsson)

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The Dangers of Bush (or wild or stealth) Camping

On my journey through Africa, I was often asked by friends and strangers back home whether it isn’t dangerous to just pitch your tent in the bush or by the roadside? And I was often told by locals that it really is dangerous to camp in the wild.

What about deadly snakes and poisonous spiders? What about lions and hippos?

What about being robbed or attacked.

The reality is, of course, bush camping can be dangerous. So can crossing the road. But in the same way that you always look left and right before stepping off the pavement, it’s only common sense to be selective with your camp spot.

Road to Booue, Gabon, Central Africa
Road to Booue, Gabon, Central Africa

I always look for a secluded spot where I shouldn’t be seen by people and certainly not from the road. If I know there are ‘dangerous’ animals around, then I either don’t camp in the bush or I do what I can to minimize the risks. For example, always zipping up the tent inner to keep out snakes, spiders, scorpions etc. If there could be lions, I make sure I’m inside my tent well before sunset and don’t get out again until the sun is high in the sky (no matter how desperate for the toilet!). If there could be hippos, then I don’t camp where they may choose a route down to the river…

The Niger River, Guinea, West Africa
The Niger River, Guinea, West Africa

Well that was all in Africa. Now I’m in Canada, but the same rules apply. Only now I have to be careful about bears, rather than lions. That means carrying bear repellent spray everywhere in case of a chance encounter and keeping the camp spot spotless from food. Bears love the smell of food. So that means cooking away from the tent and storing food at a distance too. That’s not good when I wake in the middle of the night with food cravings, but it’s small price to pay.

The Chicotin Plateau, BC, Canada
The Chicotin Plateau, BC, Canada

In, 20 months of bush camping between the UK and Cape Town and now a month under canvas in Canada, I had no serious encounters.

As chance would have it, my closest encounter came just a couple of days ago, ironically, when I was in town.

Walking to the shop, a sudden gust of wind sent unsecured items flying. I had to dodge a piece of flying sheet metal by jumping into the road before continuing down the pavement, when a tree fell down just a few feet from me. I emerged, slightly surprised, with nothing more than a lot of dirt and leaf debris in my right ear. The parked car wasn’t quite so lucky!

You see, there are risks in all walks of life. Of we were scared of every potential threat or danger, then we’d procrastinate in bed all day. But that’s no way to live. Better to get out there and take a chance. You never know when fate will deal the fatal blow, but it’ll probably be when you least expect it.

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A Bike of Many Parts

It’s a few weeks since I arrived back in the UK. The short cycle from the airport was the least smooth of the whole journey. Nothing to do with the roads this time though. When it came to re-assembling the bike, having been packed in a big box for the flight, the pieces just didn’t seem to fit together. The gear cables wouldn’t connect to the hub so I couldn’t change gear, the brakes barely worked (although that had been an increasing problem over the final weeks) and the forks didn’t fit in quite right into the frame so I had to leave a few of the spacers out. And then there was the wobbly back wheel which nine months after I first noticed it, was now, well, very wobbly. Never mind, I could still cycle. And it wasn’t far.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been without the use of the bike (although fortunately I have a moutain bike too, which is getting well-used instead). Time to get it fixed. First I took the back wheel over to SJS Cycles, where Dave had a quick look at it and said he could have the hubb all fixed up in half an hour. And sure enough, after half an hour, I walked out of the shop with a replacement hubb, and new sprocket fitted too. Very impressed. I also stocked up on three Schwalbe Marathon XR tyres.

Yes I know a bike only has two wheels! In any case the tyres that took me through Africa still have some life in them. But Schwalbe no longer manufacture these tyres and there’s just no other tyre that will stand the test of touring time. These should keep me on the road for a while longer. My legs are bound to give up before the tyres give out.

But the rest wasn’t going to be quite so simple. Simply because I’ve decided to fix the rest of the bike myself.

I thought I had the spare parts I needed. And so on Sunday morning, with multi-tool, pliers and a good supply of WD40, I set about taking off the old parts that needed replacing. On closer inspection, this turned out to be most of the bike bar the frame, wheels and new hubb.

My touring bike - mid-repair

Having removed several layers of bike oil and grease from my hands and body, the afternoon was mostly spent on the internet searching out the replacement parts I need… brake cable set, gear cables, headset bearings, chain, chainring, a new twistshifter assembly and the only part that sounded remotely interesting which was the ‘noodles and boots’ (and they’re nothing but small bent metal tubes that the brake cables fit through).

So until I get the new parts through, the rack is on my mountain bike so I can head off to the hills at the weekends. In the meantime, my trusty tourer is scattered about my room in several rusty or dirty pieces.

I think I forgot to mention – the next tour I’ll be cycling the Great Divide from Canada, through the USA, to Mexico. You can read more about it on my new website, Helen’s Take On…

And over the coming weeks I’ll be posting more on the Togblog about how the preparations for the trip are going.

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The Last Leg

Entering Zambia from the DR Congo was like entering another world. Not only were there beautiful tarmac roads which I had to cycle on the left side of the road for the first time in a year, but there was suddenly also plenty of wildlife. Congo seemed devoid of animals. Unless of course they were being served up for dinner. Zambia on the other hand was alive with the sounds of birds.

Namibian desert - just rocks, sand and sky

The only shade - looking at the Brandberg mountains, Namibia

The advantages of wild camping - Damaraland sunset, Namibia

I have been amazed by the wildlife I have seen throughout Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. And I didn’t even have to go on safari to see it either. Elephants, lion, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, crocodiles, hippos, impala, kudu, oryx, springbok, bat-eared foxes, ostriches. My camp has been visited by hyena and jackal too, but in the first case I didn’t get out my tent to see them and the second time I was out when the jackal stole my food.

Me and my bike in Damaraland, Namibia

Wildebeest on the salt pans, Botswana

My main concerns were from elephants on the roads as they don’t seem to like bikes. If I failed to see them (for big animals, they hide very well) I would be so close when they finally smelt me that they would get upset and flap their ears and raise their trunk and turn to face me. I’d pedal furiously before they thought about charging. And then there was a lioness on the road, which I thought it prudent to get a lift past!

Zebra at the Makgadikadi Pans, Botswana

Elephants on the Chobe River, Botswana

Victoria Falls, Zambia

Victoria Falls on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border is fantastic and the scenery of Botswana – the salt pans and Okavango delta – and Namibia – plenty of desert – during the rainy season with all the plant life in bloom is simply stunning. So southern Africa has been like a holiday from the challenges of travelling through central Africa. Although the last couple of weeks were tougher with the corrugated gravel roads, strong headwinds and incessant flies.

Dunes at Sossusvlei - unusually with water too

The Kuiseb Pass, Namibia - in full bloom

But now I’m just a few days away from the border of South Africa and only about 1,000km to Cape Town, my final destination.

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Through Central Africa

Finally I got the bike in tip top shape. But having spent 10 days in Yaounde living on a diet of chicken rotisserie and beer, I was less so. Oh well. Time to hit the road again.

A close relative - the bonobo

Wild camping in Gabon

Sandy tracks through the border area from Gabon to Republic of Congo

I enjoyed some pleasant days cycling through Gabon. Good tarmac following the Lalara river through equatorial forest and then taking the dusty backroads to Booue. It didn’t take long for me to be covered head to toe in the fine orange dust which obscured all views when the logging trucks came trundling past. Unfortunately I was ill in Booue (from drinking contaminated pump water) and decided to take a train to Franceville to recover.

The dusty dirt roads of Gabon

Camping in the forest of Gabon

Then I cycled on towards the Republic of Congo border. I came to a sign directing me to this next country and immediately the tarmac ended in a pit of sand. Now it was time to start pushing and dragging. Very slowly I made my way through this remote area until eventually I came across more tarmac a few days later. Thanks to Chinese business interests and the President’s self-interests in lavishing funds on his family village. So from there it was a smooth ride right through to Brazzaville on the banks of the Congo River.

Me in a dugout canoe on Lac Fwa on the border of the Kasai provinces

A boat ride across the mighty Congo river to Kinshasa and I was in the other Congo – the Democratic(-by-name) Republic of Congo. With a reputation of endemic corruption and history of bloody war, some still ongoing I was more than a little concerned. But I needn’t have been. I avoided the insecure regions and met along my travels some of the friendliest people yet. Sure, travel could be hard and frustrating, and some of my toughest, most challenging days were in the DR Congo. But I found myself loving the country all the more for it.

Road block - pay the bike tax to pass

But it wasn’t just all pedalling in the Congo. I took some time off and went further into the forests by 4×4 and along the Sankuru river in a dugout. One experience was a four-day triain journey. I could almost have cycled quicker. And that didn’t include the time waiting for the train. Indeed, if you ever decide to travel to the Congo, expect to spend most of your time waiting. Patience is a requirement.

Waiting by the Sankuru River

I spent three months in this country. I could have stayed much longer. But my visa was about to expire and I set out on this trip to cycle to Cape Town. I knew I could always come back some day. So off I went, towards Zambia.

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The West End

Silence since Ghana. I apologise.

So here comes a short series of where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to in the last 9 months…

Well, the simple answer is, I’ve been cycling. A lot.

11,000km in fact.

So first up is the end to the journey through West Africa

Ghana seems such a long time ago. Indeed, I watched England fall out of the World Cup from a little bar in Cape Coast. But then I hit the road and started pedalling. Through Togo and Benin with their brutal history of slave trading, Dahomey warriors and voodoo religion. Fascinating.

Bridge to cross in Nigeria

Always plenty of people about in Nigeria

Endless Nigeria - one of the less busy roads

Then for Nigeria with it’s reputation of crime and kidnappings. But what I found was a fantastically friendly people who were as kind and generous as they were funny. A good thing really in such a populous country. Did you know that 1 in 5 Africans is Nigerian? The only danger was from the heavy traffic and reckless driving with a couple of narrow escapes where I was run off the road. I lost count of the number of wrecked lorries by the roadside.

Cameroons Highlands are beautiful if a little hilly

Slowly slowly round the hills in Cameroon

And then into Cameroon where I got my first taste of really rough roads. At the time, I would have hardly called them roads. But since then I’ve travelled through Central Africa and discovered what bad roads really look like! At least I could still pedal in Cameroon. Except up the exceptionally steep hills that is. It took quite some determination to turn down a lift when it was offered! But the scenery of the Cameroon highlands was superb and at least distracted from the tired legs a little. So tired one day I even ended the night sleeping in a hospital bed…

But perhaps the best thing about Cameroon was the beer. Didn’t matter what time of day it was or where in the country you were, you were sure to find an open bar. I left the breakfast drinking to the locals though and stuck to the 600ml bottles of coca-cola which gave plenty of energy and less of a headache!

In the city of Yaounde I took some time out and got stuck into some serious bike maintenance. I wanted a bike ready to take on what Central Africa had to offer (coming up in the next update…)

Voodoo religion remains strong in Togo and Benin

Memorial to those slaves shipped from Ouidah, Benin

Beach at Lome, Togo

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Cycle Touring Maintenance Essentials

The Toothbrush

No I’m not talking about twice-a-day cleaning your pearly whites. I’m talking about caring for your bike.

For my current cycle tour from the UK to Cape Town, I have in my panniers all manner of spare parts and tools for on the road repairs and maintenance.
There’s one piece of equipment I have used more frequently than any other:

It’s a toothbrush.

Many of the roads I’m travelling are dusty. The dust fills the air when vehicles pass. I create my own little orange clouds from my bike tyres. This dust settles on everything; on you and your bike. Ok, so you end up looking filthy, but you can still pedal. The bike on the other hand doesn’t fare so well. The dust clogs the chain and it’s not long before the bike is creaking and groaning in response.

Oiling the chain only makes more dust congeal. You have to clean the chain properly and remove all the dirt. The best way I have found to do this is with an old toothbrush.

A toothbrush is the perfect size to get in-between the individual chain segments and clear the dirt and dust away. It’s lightweight and takes up next to no space, which are two important requirements for any cycle-touring equipment. It’s also very cheap and can be bought anywhere. It takes less than a minute.

You don’t have to be cycling on Africa’s dusty roads to take full advantage of the toothbrush either. You can use it whenever you clean your bike – whether that’s during a regular clean while on tour or after a particularly muddy mountain bike ride on the trails back home. All you have to do is let the mud or dirt dry and use the toothbrush to dust it off. Only then can you get out the lubricant and give it a good oil.

The toothbrush can also be used to easily reach the dirt in those hard to get to parts of the bike. It can also be used to smooth oil finely over the entirety of the chain. Too much oil on the chain is wasteful and only exacerbates the problem of dust clogging.

Other Essentials

A rag: For cleaning the rest of the bike, any old piece of cloth can be used. Together with the toothbrush it’s all you really need besides a supply of water.

Oil: For lubricating the chain and preventing rust

Multi-tool: For making adjustments, tightening loose parts and general repairs. A complete multi-tool should have a set of hex wrenches (Allen keys), screw drivers and box end wrenches (ring spanners), tyre levers and a spoke key. It may not be as easy to use as individual tools, but it’s compact size and weight make it perfect for cycle touring, or even taking with you on the trails.

Puncture Repair Kit and Pump: Punctures are inevitable, it’s just a matter of when it will happen. You’ll need to be able to remove the tyre (using the tyre levers from the multi-tool), repair the whole in the inner tube and re-inflate the tyre.

Duct tape and Cable Ties: For everything else. A little imagination may sometimes be needed, but almost any other problem can be solved with the use of either duct tape, cables ties or both.

Useful online resources:
Park Tools: With excellent step-by-step guides for all bike maintenance and repairs

Topeak: This company produce an excellent range of multi-tools, including their ‘Alien’ series

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A 10 Month Take On Africa By Numbers

Over ten months ago I left the UK to cycle to Cape Town. Ten months has taken me to Accra in Ghana. It’s been a fantastic journey so far. Here are a few stats from the trip to date…

Days since leaving the UK: 305
Nights spent in Africa: 253
Nights spent in Africa without paying for accommodation: 146
Days spent cycling: 151
Number of days cycling alone (on this ‘solo’ adventure): 57
Most consecutive days without using the bike: 24

Kilometres cycled: 12,580
Kilometres paddled: 350

Average daily distance cycled (cycling days only) in kilometres: 83
Average daily distance cycled (rest days included) in kilometres: 41

Number of countries travelled through: 13
Number of times I have crossed the Guinean border (legally or otherwise): 8

Most kilometres cycled in one day: 178
Biggest hill cycled up: 1609m
Maximum recorded temperature I have cycled in, in Fahrenheit: 111
Top speed in kilometres per hour: 64

Most consecutive days without a shower: 15
Most consecutive days wearing the same bike shorts without washing them: 12
Number of hot showers in Africa: 4

Number of snakes and scorpions seen (alive): 11
Number of termites embedded in my leg: 1
Mosquito bites: 1655*

Cycle tourers met in Africa: 5
Number of times I have locked my bike in Africa: 9
Number of times I have worn a bike helmet: 2
Number of puncture repair patches used: 4
Most books I had in my panniers at any given time: 11

Marriage proposals: 5
Accidents caused: 2
Number of times I have fallen off: 1
Number of times I have been hit by passing traffic: 1

Times I have been given incorrect change: 43*
Bribes demanded: 2
Bribes paid: 0

Pairs of sunglasses lost: 3
Flip-flops broken: 4

Mayonnaise sandwiches eaten: 92*
Bananas eaten: lost count

Beers drunk: 355
Average kilometres cycled per beer: 35.4

Biking down Guinea Bissau's dusty roads

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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.


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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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