Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Smiling Coast of Africa

Before taking off, the manager of Keur Bamboung campsite warns us: the Gambian border is no walk in the park. The Gambian officials will try to rip us off, and we better remain very patient and cooperative, or else… On the Senegalese side of the border, a stampede of money-changers awaits us with ridiculous rates, but the officials are friendly and efficient. The Gambians top them, however. Right at the border post, the constant chanting of “Welcome to The Gambia, the Smiling Coast of Africa” begins and it stops only when you leave the country. Excellent branding, indeed. I don’t care if it may be a slogan invented by the country’s authoritarian president, it seems to suit its people well. We do pay a little fee for the “seen on arrival” stamp at the customs office, and are happy that the not so official-looking Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) guy waves us through after a while, leaving our luggage untouched, but that’s all we can complain about. In no time, we are cruising towards the Barra-Banjul ferry.

Amidst the hassle in changing money and buying ferry tickets, we get solicited by the next squad of DEA to have our luggage searched. No way to get around it this time. Biting my lip, I remain friendly and keep on smiling and joking. I see Isabel thinking the same: we are carrying a lot of prescription drugs, and there will certainly be something they don’t like. They are genuinely looking for illicit drugs though, and of course they don’t find any with us. As a result, they are very kind and curious about our travelling and motorbikes. One of the guys tells us that he rides a XT660 too. I don’t really believe him, until a blue XT660R joins us at the ferry. A policeman doesn’t tell stories! Ansu is lucky to ride one of two similar bikes in The Gambia for his job. Together, we ride off the ferry in the port of Banjul. At the gate, two suspicious-looking National Intelligence Agency guys try to stop us for another luggage check. I urge Isabel to open the throttle, but she is already caught in the crowd, and the guys are aggressively trying to hold her. I shout at Ansu before rushing back to Isabel. Our plea doesn’t impress her attackers much, but when Ansu identifies himself and tells them how we have been searched just before the ferry, they let go. Quite naturally, we are following Ansu out of town now. I ask him to drop us “at some place not too expensive”, but he takes us home instead. To our surprise, we meet his little brother, his British wife and her visiting British friends, sitting in a rocking chair in the garden, with their feet in a cold water bath. Home is where we are. We spend a great night and day with them.

Brother Kaka takes us to their family compound and shows us around the village. We ride the bikes onto a pristine white-sand-and-palm beach and for the remainder of the day, it’s all about sun and sea. We had planned to leave shortly after noon, but part of the ubiquitous “Gambia Experience” is the lack of time management, so it is getting dark when the bikes are fully tanked, loaded and ready for departure. No choice but to camp very nearby. The German-ran camp site is not our cup of tea, and we are happy to leave the following day via the south bank of the Gambia river towards the Trans-Gambia Highway (TGH). Tarmac stops all too soon, and our speed on the incredibly dusty gravel track slows down even more by the obligatory stops at police or military check points every 10 to 15 kms. Usually they are just interested in our bikes, but sometimes they ask us what we can offer them, or if we’ve just brought their lunch. Isabel wittily replies them that she brought her most beautiful gift: her smile… and it works invariably.

The ferry on the TGH in Mansa Konko brings us to the north bank. The landscape is different here: less green and not so swampy, but a little more hills and seemingly less populated. This road is perfectly tarred, but we have lost so much time on the dirt track that we reach Janjangbureh after more than an hour of riding in the dark. Isabel’s windscreen suffers a blow from a flying dog or bat, but that’s as bad as it gets. The camp site is lacking electricity, but it’s charm is lightyears away from the previous night, not the least because of the other guests: university lector and fellow motorbiker Mbay tells us stories about the Gambian kings, about Senegalese corruption and his Kenya memories… Habari? Mzuri! Early morning, the camp site is covered with mist from the river. Minutes later, it is raided by monkeys trying to steal beignets from the breakfast table. One succeeds...

I fix a loose hand guard on my bike (due to the corrugations on the dirt track) and we head further East, along the north bank. Most of the time, it is a nice gravel road, being less dusty and bumpy because of the near complete absence of motorized vehicles other than mopeds. To reach the ferry to Basse, we take a sandy donkey track that turns out to be a shortcut.

Eating a delicious dish of rice, vegetables and fish balls while waiting for the ferry, we are shocked to hear a US Peace Corps volunteer ask, while looking at our Alpinestars Tech 3 All Terrain boots: “Hi, are you guys skiing?” It is remarkable how The Gambia is packed with American and British NGO’s, while the rest of West-Africa is clearly the French’s playground. For us, Belgians with both English and French language skills, it’s all the more interesting to discover both… After the Gambian border, we switch back into French language mode (not without difficulties) and are welcomed back into Senegal. Again a passavant, but this time it is valid all the way to Mali, so there is no need to go to the central customs office in Dakar now. We cannot believe how easy and even agreeable all the border crossings have been until now. Where is all the hassle people have foretold us?

For more pics, see album "The Smiling Coast".

Ceci n’est pas une poubelle

It is soaring hot when we leave the Senegalese capital. The sun is burning on our helmets while we work ourselves through the traffic chaos of the suburbs, southwards into the delta of the Sine and Saloum rivers. The tracks4africa GPS maps are very basic in Senegal, so we have to rely on our 1/4.000.000 Michelin 741 map and the help of friendly locals to find the small dirtroads leading further south. In Joal-Fadiout we leave the tarred road in search for Ndangane or Palmarin, whichever will prove easiest to find. Just after the village, we pass some extensively signposted mangrove rehabilitation projects that are so badly littered that they remind us of René Magritte (ceci n’est pas une poubelle!). 

We find a nice camping spot in the garden of a hostel and take the bikes for a nightly ride to the fishing village of Djiffer, “land’s end” between the Saloum estuary and the Atlantic. Children and youngsters flock together and direct us to the local diner. We are being served rice with bits of dried fish. The Senegalese eat more fish than meat, but most people can only afford the smelly and funny looking dried fish that line the streets of any fishing village.

At first relaxing, the constant waxing and waning sound of the ocean’s waves and the lingering heat of the day keep me awake all night long. Nicolaas goes for an early morning run along the beach and through the swamps and the neighboring village, while I try to catch some more sleep. By the time we’re mounting our luggage temperatures are already raising. Clothes, bags, windscreen, everything is sticky from the ocean’s breeze. The soil in the regularly flooding plains is very salty, and droughts have exacerbated this in recent decennia. I cannot help thinking of our Tenere’s reputed (Italian) corrosion sensitivity.

We go back north, upstream around the delta, and reach Foundioung in time for the 3 o’clock ferry. On the southbank the tarmac is slowly decaying and turning into a bumpy gravel track. Failing infrastructure symptomatic of a failing government?

The Keur Bamboung campsite proves to be a gem amongst ecotourism projects. The location on an island towering over a mangrove reserve is magnificent. Our arrival by motorized pirogue at sundown, the grilled oysters for dinner, the basic but charming cabins, the guided walk through the mangroves at low tide (up to knee deep in the water, ankle deep in the mud, trying to avoid stepping on a crab), the canoe trip through mangrove-lined channels and tunnels and last but not least the wonderful swim in the slightly salty (estuary) water… it is a dream come true. Project leader Jean tells us enthusiastically about how the surrounding villages are taking part in the maintenance of the reserve and rehabilitation of mangroves elsewhere, cleverly understanding that the mangroves are a rich source of young fish (for more information on this great project, see And being a biker himself, Jean offers us an even warmer welcome...

For more pics, see album "Ceci n'est pas une poubelle".

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mission Antwerp-Dakar accomplished

The morning ride to the border is wonderful, displaying the avian fauna of the Senegal River wetlands in all its beauty, and the road is a piece of cake, but the border crossing isn’t. Mauritania is all right, but our first impression of Senegal could have been better: toll at the bridge, unofficial customs fee, utterly slow officials, and the incomprehensible need to reregister the bikes within 24 hours at the customs office in the port of Dakar, some 300 kms further south. Nothing compared to the difficulties our French friends have to endure without a carnet de passage en douane. We are very happy to arrive at a nice beach hotel in Saint-Louis late afternoon…  We spend a couple of days with our French and Mauritanian friends, enjoying the pool, beach and Papayer night club. Our heart goes out to our beloved ones at home, shivering in November’s rain and cold…

The French are going back, so it’s the two of us again, heading south. Just outside Saint-Louis, we stumble upon the (apparently infamous) police post that succeeds in ripping off every unexpecting tourist for not using the indicator light when pulling over. It doesn't make a good impression of this country, plagued by corruption and bad governance as it is. Dakar is the city to be avoided, as we are told, because of its touts, hustlers and pickpockets. We will try to avoid the worst by finding a nice place to sleep and leave the luggage near Lac Rose, the all famous arrival of the early Paris-Dakar, and then ride into town. Potholed roads or just dirt tracks, heavy traffic, chaos, people and animals everywhere, but no sign of aggression yet. We follow the GPS all the way to the port, park the bikes, go into the customs office, are being helped around and an hour later, we cannot help to feel that this city isn’t all that bad. There is a lot of genuine interest in our bikes and our journey, and even the youngsters at the port are rather polite. Back at the camp site, we decide to take the test and move into town, tomorrow.

The following day, I definitely have to tour the lake and as Isabel doesn’t feel perfectly fit, I leave on my own. The southern shore is gravelled and provides me with a nice view on the weird pink color of the lake and the dunes between the lake and the ocean. I’m in doubt whether to try the northern way back, because I have seen where it goes: sand dunes several meters high… I’m glad to find a small track leading into the fields around the lake. Soon, I have no choice but to continue, and I rush over the dunes, through a village, towards the beach. This will probably be the first and the last time I’m taking the bike this far… The easiest way to get out of here, is to start riding along the waterfront and wait for a lower dune to cross it. I have never felt this before: high speed, drifting through the sand, pulling the bike backwards… it almost feels like I am surfing on the ocean’s waves. I manage to get over the first dunes, a very steep downhill, but then get off track and end somewhere in a swamp around a side lake. It takes me a while to get back uphill in the dunes and on the track. The Tenere gets overheated and I have to give her a break. I get a little help from a French 4WD driver and he advises me to lower the rear tire pressure. I wish I hadn’t followed his advice: I’m no longer able to cross any of the tracks made by the hotel-owned safari trucks: the rear wheel stays behind and the front goes completely loose! I need another hour or so and the help of a souvenir-seller to cover the last 2 kms to the campsite. But I made it. I toured Lac Rose on a XT660Z Tenere with Heidenau K60 tires! It cost me another twisted steering bar and sand all over the bike, though.

With a little help from a friendly man, we find a basic and affordable room in Dakar. Again, we are surprised by how far away our experience is from what we were told. We have been here for a couple of days now and the only bad experience is that after dark, some T-shirt sellers have tried to pickpocket us while we were taking a short walk on a side street. With a firm voice and hand movement, it was not so difficult to get rid of them. All other street sellers have been polite, friendly and readily accept a “no”. People at petrol stations (cleaning the bikes and air filters), shops, markets and on the streets in all kinds of neighborhoods, posh and poor alike, have been just as everywhere else on this planet. We have given Dakar a definite “go through”. It’s just a pity that we did not really have the chance to get under its skin at night. And they should definitely do something about the daily power cuts.

So, that’s where we are now. It’s already been a fantastic journey, but as the local Yamaha importer told us: from Dakar on, there are no 17’’ rear tires anymore, reflecting the relative distance to the Developed World. We are planning to visit The Gambia and then go East towards Mali, another country on the Black List. In Bamako, the bikes will need to be serviced; at least another oil + filter change (over 10k kms!). The rear tires are approaching the Autumn of their all too short lives, and Isabel’s chain set is showing wear signs. The Yamaha guy warned us not to grease it anymore, as long as we don’t meet water. In the dust, it survives longer without than with a fancy European chain spray… TIA, this is Africa!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Piste de contrebandiers

One of the French invites us to throw our luggage into his 4WD and ride a track to the Diama Dam border crossing to Senegal, along with 3 French bikers. After having made sure that the track is not too difficult, we accept. After all, the border crossing through the ferry at Rosso is known to be a pain in the ass and best to be avoided. Néness, Régis and Michel pick us up at the camping ground with their Suzuki DRZ’s and Yamaha WR. They are clearly not playing in the same league: enduro helmets, clothes and bikes. Not to mention their 20 years of experience. A bit shaky, Isabel and I follow them when they take off with an impressive wheelie. Luckily, the first 100km are tarmac and they can hardly keep up with us. In a tiny village, we choose a track leading towards the coast. Before arriving at the coastal dunes, it enters a sandy scrubland, where tracks are crisscrossing towards the south. This is not what we had in mind. Isabel tries to avoid the soft sandy stretches by making detours, while I am struggling to keep my speed up and float over the sand. I’m not doing so badly, but Isabel is going slowly as a tortoise. By now, the 4WD has disappeared on a parallel track and the motards are far ahead of us. We have but covered about 10km since the main track, and I am already running out of water while waiting for Isabel. She too is overheating and shows some signs of fatigue, with at least another 60 or 70 kms to go. I leave Isabel resting in the shadow of a thorn bush and find the others some kms ahead. They have stopped because one of the Suz’ has lost all of its engine oil and has to be pulled. I can hardly imagine what it means to pull or be pulled in this terrain. They assure me that they cannot go very fast now and will wait for us.

I rush back to Isabel and we continue to struggle, but it is only when Michel suggests to switch bikes with Isabel that we really find a way out: I am astonished to see Isabel take off with the small Yam, daring to open the throttle and speeding it through the sand. I even have difficulties following her now. Fatigue is bothering me, and I drop the bike while trying to keep up with her. The Tenere ends uphill in a scrub and the fork is a little twisted. I don’t pull it anymore. Very ashamed but with as much relief I accept Régis’ and Néness’ offer to jump on the pillion seat and get a ride to the 4WD.
The 4WD is awaiting us at the beginning of a gravel track. From here, we will be able to speed and cross the border before it’s closed at 6PM. We are joking about the problems we’ve encountered, but everything seems solved now: the oil spill was because of a loose nut on the gearbox axle and it’s already been fixed. The gravel track leads to a fishermen’s village, though, and soon we are once again in the same kind of sandy tracks that are most often used by smugglers, as we are told later on. It goes on and on, and although the swampy grasslands are a fantastic view, hiding warthogs and thousands of birds, we are getting very very tired.

Although she was going really fast and smooth before, Isabel is having a hard time now and drops the bike a couple of times, braking the clutch lever in one of the falls. It’s clear that we cannot continue like this. We decide that Michel will take Isabel on the back of her own bike to look for the others and return with another pilot, leaving me behind with my Tenere and the lighter WR. I’m desperate for some rest, too. It gives me enough energy for the last part of the ride, just before sunset. We meet the others not far from where the main track towards the border should be, but they are having mechanical problems once again (the gearbox axle has broken on the far side of the front chain wheel). The three of us try to prepare a makeshift campsite for the night (little water left, no food, no shelter, but enough wood to make a bonfire), while the other two will try to find the 4WD and the main track. Half an hour later, we are delightedly surprised to hear that there is a three star lodge just 3 kms from here, where the 4WD is waiting for us. I’m riding the WR now, and it is indeed a world apart, even without a clutch… Sadly, we are still in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, otherwise we would have enjoyed a large can of beer at the lodge. The chicken has never tasted as good, though. Cheers to our French companions, whose patience and skills enabled us to live this great experience! Everybody is drop dead tired and in no time we are all sound asleep.

Mad Max

Apart from its political importance, Dakhla has a certain fame among kite-surfers for its constant wind and vast beaches. We ride along beautiful lagoons, before climbing back onto the cliffs that border the continent. Once there, the road meanders into the mainland and the wind gets hotter. The landscape consists of eroded sand stone hills, dotted with rusty little signposts warning us to stay on the main axis because of “danger, mines!”

Indeed conflict between Morocco and Mauritania has left the border zone with mine fields and a 3 km no-man’s land. Not so much hassle to pass the Moroccan side. A turbaned Mauritanian is a bit wary about our plans to visit his country. On the other hand, a group of French motards is heading back home after a 2 week trip to the once touristy Adrar region and they have seen no terrorists neither police there. Very reassuring indeed…

The Mauritanian side of the border is friendly and welcoming, although the officers seem a little bit disappointed that our “linea recta” itinerary will neglect so much of the beauty of their beloved country. Sunset is near and we accept the invitation of a Moor to accompany him to his hostel in Nouadhibou, 40 km off the border. The nightly arrival has something of a Mad Max scene: dust and diesel fumes everywhere, rusty car wrecks are dying next to the road or slowly coughing their last breath in front of us. Turbaned men in traditional boubou cover their face to protect it against the dust, giving them a very suspicious appearance. We leave the luggage at the hostel and take one bike to the city center. The crowd is doing some last minute shopping for Tabaski. Tomorrow the whole country will disappear into the desert to slaughter and eat mutton with their relatives. But tonight all over the market they are creating the thickest layer of rubbish one has ever seen. Eric, the Liberian house servant of our host, makes us laugh with his stories and confesses that his boss is a secret agent, which adds sense to the picture frames showing him shaking hands with Mitterand, Col. Kadhaffi and the Mauritanian president. We don’t know whether or not we should feel safer now.

The 470km ride from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott takes us through scorching hot and sandy desert landscapes. At first acacia trees and small villages consisting of scattered huts, made of wood or hammered oil barrels, then salt lakes and the crossing of enormous sand dunes. If it wasn’t for the recently tarred road we could have never crossed these parts with our heavily loaded bikes. Alongside, plastic fences and bushes are planted to battle the dunes, but every now and then, the wind has blown over some sand. I’d love to take more pictures, but riding at night is no option, and it is already getting late. After every picture break, the sweat is cooling me down for 1 or 2 minutes, but then everything is dry again. Nouakchott doesn’t show its face until the last 5 km. It is a disorganized nomad settlement barely 50 years old. A few high buildings are randomly built over the city, and there is no obvious city center. Quite naturally, we end up in an overlanders’ nest. The atmosphere is relaxed and we feel like staying a couple of days. We spend them buying sea food (langoustes and prawns) at the picturesque fish market, reading “Jeune Afrique”, an Africa-based weekly covering the good and the bad news from the continent (providing us with background info about the Sahara as well as the elections in several upcoming countries), hanging around with travelling locals, expats and French overlanders, and drinking strong and foaming Mauritanian tea. Nice to hear a local view on terrorism, politics, women’s rights and so on, wrapped in a good joke or a steaming discussion. We even dare taste Nouakchott’s night life, but we soon feel that West-Africa must have more on offer than this.

Sahara: a silent war

By now, we have read more about the events that have taken place just days ago near Laayoune, the only major city of the Western Sahara. A gathering of Saharaoui demanding an improvement in their situation had grown into a 5000 tents’ camp. Not only had organizational problems arisen, but political activists from the Polisario had mingled among the crowd and fired up the sentiments, preventing a return of sympathizing citizens towards Laayoune. The Moroccan army could no longer stand by and watch and raided the camp. Afterwards, several casualties were reported during riots in Laayoune. An armada of Spanish journalists, siding with the Saharaoui/Polisario, was expelled from the Western Sahara, since Moroccan officials felt that their reports on the situation were not balanced and fair. None of all this was visible while we were riding through Laayoune, just 5 days later. In a way, this is reassuring, but creepy at once: while biting away the awful distances, we have completely missed what was going on in the region… Nevertheless, upon entering the no-man’s land between Morocco and Mauritania, we rode through a row of military and a group of young men who had just arrived in a green army coach. The latter were sitting and hanging around a pile of old furniture. Later, we learned that they were Saharaoui, thrown out of their own country because of their involvement in the events in Laayoune. Good background information on this subject can be found at