10 Questions: Cycling West Africa
Photographer Jonathan Tillett and Anne-Sophie Christensen spent 10 weeks in early 2011 cycling 2,500km across Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
With Sierra Leone and Liberia opening up recently, the route provides an interesting variation on the more usual passage via Mali. Here’s a quick snapshot of their experiences on the trip.
1. Give us a rundown of the route.
Dakar, Senegal is an obvious place to start. It’s a major hub for flights and Senegal is an easy introduction to a tough travel region. It has good food, accommodation and tourist infrastructure.
Our route took us south to The Gambia, another easy country (and English-speaking to boot) for some relaxation and side trips up the Gambia river, then into the stunning Casamance region of Senegal. River deltas are easily crossed with the bikes in pirogues and vast deserted beaches make for awesome riding.
Next is the tiny, ex-Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau and from here on, things take a turn for the rougher with extremely primitive facilities and extended periods of camping. We used a remote, seasonal crossing point into Guinea before continuing south to Sierra Leone and Liberia, finishing in the capital Monrovia.
2. Did you feel it was safe?
This is first question most people ask, and the easiest to answer. Yes. We didn’t once feel threatened in any of the major cities, including those with such fearful reputations as Freetown and Monrovia. Out in the rural areas (where cyclists spend most of their time) you’ll face nothing more menacing than bewildered villagers.
Once, camped deep in a forest in a remote part of Senegal, we were woken in our tent in the early hours by the sound of knocking nearby. Eventually summoning the courage to investigate, I came face to face with a frightened farmer tapping his palm trees for palm wine. His hand quivered when I shook it and he apologised profusely for disturbing us, while it was us who should have been apologising.
Sadly, to most people the words Liberia and Sierra Leone conjure up terrifying images of rampaging militias and doped child soldiers. Nowadays these countries are peaceful and desperately trying to move on from the horrors of the years of war. For visitors and locals alike, the sooner this stigma is shaken off, the better.
That said, the region is volatile and it’s important to keep tabs on the political situation in the run-up to a trip. Unfortunately reliable information is hard to come by, especially from official sources, so cast the net as wide as possible.
3. Did you have any run-ins with authority on the trip?
If the UK Foreign Office advice is to be believed, we could expect to be robbed at gunpoint almost anywhere, by bandits (including bandits dressed in army uniforms) and by the army themselves at checkpoints. We didn’t see any bandits and the soldiers we encountered were all friendly.
The checkpoints in Guinea (which have a grim reputation) were particularly entertaining. All motorists are required to pay bribes to the commander but the sight of a foreign tourist is so unusual that normal protocol is discarded. The soldiers would greet us, listen in amazement to details of our journey (sometimes holding up the queue of motorists trying to hand over their cash) and send us on our way with a wave and “Bon Voyage!”
We dealt with the police once, on an island in Sierra Leone, where we had the misfortune to have some cash stolen from our hotel room. The hotel owner was implicated and the police chief was mortified. (“Mr. Jonathan. This is a very serious matter.”). He ensured we were paid back what we’d lost and locked the hotel owner up in jail overnight for good measure.
Leaving Sierra Leone, a customs official on the Liberian border demanded a carnet de passage for our bikes and threatened to send us back to Freetown if we couldn’t produce one. He then leant back in his chair theatrically and sighed “But this is Africa. There is another solution.” I told him what a pleasure his country had been (true) and how we’d encountered no problems (also true). He was so ashamed he let us pass without further obstruction.
4. What were some of the highlights?
Sierra Leone. Amazing people, varied scenery, and the best beaches you’re likely to find anywhere in the world. Don’t rush through, explore off the beaten track including the islands, and prepare to have your preconceptions shattered.
In pure biking terms, the 200km border crossing from Guinea Bissau to Guinea was the highlight for me. A narrow track snakes through the forests, fording streams, through villages that are days’ walk from civilization. Sometimes the track ends at the banks of a wide river where a canoe waits to ferry occasional passengers across.
But what the region is really about is the people. Draw water from village wells in a cracked bucket on a frayed rope and camp under a tropical canopy while the sound of laughter rises on the evening mist from a distant village. Stop for a warm coke (there’ll be no electricity) and discuss life with local shopkeepers. Banter with the hoards of children that descend on you at every stop. Cycling through this remote part of Africa will bring you into contact with some of the poorest, and most genuine people in the world – you’ll feel the rhythm of rural life and understand what makes these people special.
Finally, there’s practicality. Forget cars. Public transport is unreliable, dangerous and very limited. Biking is the best, indeed one of the only means of transport in remote parts of the region. The ability to tackle rough, narrow tracks, as well as cross rivers and deltas in canoes makes it a very, very satisfying place to tour in.
5. What was the low point?
Stuck in a small town in Guinea with a rasping sore throat from the dust, staying in a brothel (bucket showers only) with nothing appetizing on sale at the market.
6. What’s the weather like?
We were there from Dec to Feb when the weather is dry, hot and humid. Early morning is the most comfortable time for biking when it’s cool and often misty. Temperatures reach about 33°C during the day but the humidity often makes it feel hotter. Attempting this route in the rainy season would be a test of endurance, with many of the smaller roads impassable.
7. And the terrain?
Mostly flat. We skipped the highlands region of Guinea in favour of more time in Sierra Leone, but plenty has been written about cycling in the Guinea highlands. The wind was generally unnoticeable but with a slight northerly bias.
8. Is it expensive?
Senegal is not cheap generally and hotels in the capital cities throughout the region are notoriously expensive. Some bargains can be found though and when camping in the rural areas you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than a few dollars a day.
9. What about gear; any special recommendations?
- Bikes – we used unmodified 1994-vintage Kona Kilaueuas. Their basic, rugged construction and easy availability of spare parts make them ideal for touring in remote areas.
- Accessories – Brooks saddles, Tubus Logo racks, rear panniers only (Ortlieb), Schwalbe Marathon Extreme tyres. A strong rack and bullet-proof tyres are essential for the back roads. For the dry season panniers don’t need to be waterproof, but they do need to be dust proof.
- Spares – our style is minimalist and we took the absolute minimum. Almost any spare part can be found even in small towns throughout the region, and street-side bike mechanics will be able to fix most problems. Most parts are cheap Chinese imports (you can get a new rear derailleur for a couple of dollars) but good enough to sort you out if you’re in a fix.
- Camping – finding a secluded spot in the forest away from towns and villages is fairly straightforward. Nights are warm and humid so a tent with a detachable fly is essential. (Our Hilleberg Nallo was not a success). An MSR Hubba would be ideal for this trip. Extreme minimalists could get by with just a mosquito net strung from a tree during the dry season if they don’t mind the odd drip of condensation on steamy nights. A petrol-powered multi-fuel is the stove of choice.
10. And finally, how about a few tips for women?
This was Anne-Sophie’s first ever bike tour, and a very challenging introduction. She has the following tips for female bikers contemplating a first trip into the wilds.
- Dress conservatively. Most of the countries on our route were Muslim, though not always rigidly so. This creates a dilemma for choice of clothing in high temperatures and humidity. I found that loose-fitting knee-length shorts with padded underwear worked well as a compromise.
- Come prepared. Sanitary products for women are not readily available, so stock up beforehand.
- You will get sore, regardless of your saddle type – especially in the hot and humid conditions. Milking cream works wonders in preventing saddle sores – get it at your local vet!