Friday, January 21, 2011

Café cacao

Despite our good intentions it's nine o'clock when we say goodbye to Boni and hit the road to Kpalimé. We reach there something before noon. After the climb to Mt. Klouto, we ask around for Blifou and get directed instantly to the right track. It's recently been reconstructed in cooperation with the EU and looks pretty nice and even. It's part of a network of dirt roads through the coffee and cacao region, the so called "pistes zone café cacao". A formerly prosperous region, but not so much anymore… hence the need for road rehabilitation!

Guillaume of "Le Pavillion Vert" in Ouagadougou, promised there wouldn't be anything as beautiful as this road in Togo. The hilly landscape provides some pleasant views, but the forest is nothing like we've seen in some parts of Ghana. There's a lot of logging and burning going on and nature's obviously aching. After Blifou the track branches and we're to follow a slightly smaller but still well kept trail, occasionally eroded. But with every branching the track gets smaller and more poorly maintained, until there's only a single trace left. It's only a matter of time before the jungle swallows the remnants.


I've never been so nervous in my life! Imagine riding a 20 to 30cm wide track with raised edges, which is winding its way downhill on the rim of a steep slope, in hairpin bends and surfaced with loose boulders. F***! I study the turns intently and let my bike go in first gear, pushing the inner foot peg hard to keep it on track. The rear tire spins several times, but it helps to make the turn. I'm practically peeing my pants, but what a rush! We come to the bottom of the valley, but have to get up another hill before we reach the village of Ndigbé. Equally sharp turns, same underground but steeply uphill. Altogether, it's been the most difficult thing I've had to do on a motorbike yet. The sort of thing you wonder if you'll ever dare to do it again…

In Ndigbé, we're surprised to find a piece of tarred road. I'm glad to be able to relax for a while. But we learn that shortly after Dzogbegan it's unpaved again. We're tired and it's 4 o'clock. Better call it a day and look for a place to sleep. The sisters of the nearby monastery are happy to accommodate us with a warm smile, home-made cookies and bissap juice. What a day!

Nicolaas buying a pile of pineapples along the road.
For more pics, see album "Café cacao".
Next day we skip mass to have an early breakfast. But when the other guests arrive the discussion turns to travelling and politics. Interesting delay... Only a few minutes after departure we have to break up the ride already. The sound Nicolaas heard yesterday and tried to look after last night is back with increased intensity. Better stop and check it. It takes half an hour to discover why the caliper grates the brake disc and to fix it. Only to unload all the tools again later that day, because he forgot to tighten some screws… Sigh! It seems like we're constantly fixing something on the motorbike or caring for it, or maintaining, or cleaning or replacing, or… In this perspective our cycling trips were a lot less tiresome!

We switch dirt for tarmac and soon find out that Togo's entire road network could do with some rehabilitation! Riding it feels like being in a giant slalom for mixed categories of vehicles ranging from 30 to 30 000 kilos. Luckily the Togolese are welcoming - the "Bonne arrivée"'s and "Bienvenue!"'s are never far away - and helpful, whether you meet them on the road while fixing your bike, in the local bar or as a waiter in your hotel. They have this relaxed and cheerful air about them; inviting and attentive but not pushy. Despite the shitty roads and bad driving, we've just decided that we rather like it here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Up to date...


New horizons

The road to Togo takes longer than expected. It starts off with a nearly perfect toll motorway, but ends with a potholed piece of dirt, interrupted by construction works. The border crossing takes a little too long and it’s dark when we enter Togo, but luckily Lomé is situated right next to the border. We find the hotel where Boni’s bike has been waiting for him and it’s still there. So is Boni. It’s an emotional moment when we meet again. Although he’s slowly feeling better, he has decided to give it a rest for now and fly home soon. It provides us with the unique opportunity to buy a Heidenau K60 rear tire for my bike… so I spend a few more hours amid tires and inner tubes, but now we must be able to reach Europe with our stash of tires!

We will start riding again today (real time now!!), up North, away from the coast and towards the Harmattan desert wind that has been harassing the region since a few days. Early morning and evening are cooler now and there’s a constant haze of dust in the sky. The dry season has begun, which is only good for us: in about a month we are nearing Central Africa and that’ll be a challenge without the mud of the rainy season as well…

Traffic and visa jams

Doing a visa application on the same day we leave Cape Coast isn’t easy. Accra is much larger than we’d expected. Ghana’s capital is rapidly growing and the roads are no measure for the constantly growing number of cars and tro tro’s (shared taxi buses). My radiator fan is doing overtime in this omnipresent rush hour, which results in an overheated bike. Better have the mud and oil (always screw the engine oil plug tightly after checking the oil level!) washed off the radiator asap. To our surprise, the Nigerian embassy has moved to another part of town. Once we find it, they claim only to issue visa to Ghanaian residents. “Maybe they can organize something”, but they are going to need a hell of a lot of information: copies and proof of about every personal document that we can think of, then idem ditto for the motorbikes. No way can we deliver this before closing time. We’ll be back on Monday. The Benin embassy has moved as well. (Has this Lonely Planet team even come out of their office to research the 2010 edition of their book?) No visa there for us today, but we do find Boni’s bike parked in front of the embassy. He’s come to collect his final visa. It’s nice to have him recommend us a few things in Accra, such as the superfast internet at the Apple Store in Accra Mall or a clean and cozy bed ‘n breakfast at a Dutch-Ghanaian couple’s home, before he leaves for Togo.

We swear not to leave Accra without having our blog updated: we’re lagging about 5 or 6 weeks behind... In addition, the bikes need to be cared for – we have been on the road for 3 months and nearly 15.000 km now – to start by having them cleaned thoroughly. We make up a to-do list for the following days: apply for a visa for Nigeria and Benin, wash and clean everything, replace the chain set of Isabel’s bike, find out why the GPS doesn’t function properly, catch up with our blog posts, get Isabel’s tank bag repaired, find another pair of Veeta’s (as I call my now torn Gambian Teva-like sandals), plan our further trip, ,… eat well and sleep well. As we should have known, ordinary things are never easy in Africa. It takes us a week to prepare all documents for the Nigerian visa – the proof of hotel reservation will prove particularly difficult to come by –, we spend hours looking for leather wax for the boots and gloves, we can’t find a good replacement for the laptop adaptor cable (first one stopped working, second one burned – made in China of course), shoe repairs men are hidden in small rooms behind corners and between houses, Travellers’ Cheques can be a pain to cash, even the wifi at the Apple Store is sometimes down and the street food in Ghana doesn’t always taste as expected.
What’s worse, the news comes to our ears that Boni has been admitted at a hospital in Lomé, the capital of Togo, with a serious malaria attack. We’d like to visit him, but for the time being we’re stuck here. Luckily, we feel ourselves at home with Eelco, Hannah and the kids and they help us out with whatever we need, be it internet connection or workshop tools – Eelco’s been travelling by motorcycle as well. It offers yet another view on life in Ghana. 

The servicing of the motorbikes proves to be a challenge all in its own. The torque of the front sprocket nut is so tight that Eelco’s tools can’t do the job, the official Yamaha dealer bends his and I have no choice but to hit the city center for an impact wrench, which does the job in less than 1 second. Since the replacement chain set we have is an OE endless Yamaha set, I have to remove the swing arm. Nice mechanic’s course and a chance to clean and lubricate the bearings. We decide that it’s best to change the chain set of my bike too, albeit that it’s not worn out yet after 23.000 km (first set!). Only, we expect not to find so many impact wrenches anymore, besides maybe Abuja (Nigeria) or Yaoundé (Cameroon)
For more pics see album "Traffic and visa jams"

Finally, I look again for an explanation for the bad steering of my bike: since Ouagadougou I am experiencing a counterforce at low speed cornering. At first, I thought my squared-off rear tire accounted for this, but to my dismay the problem appears to be at the steering head. In my next advanced mechanic’s class I open and clean the upper and lower bearings. The lower set in particular is in bad shape. I must admit my bike has not exactly lived a Western European dust- and mud-free life, but this should not be a problem yet at its kilometrage!!! Anyhow, after cleaning and lubricating, the bearings function frictionless again. I treat both bikes with a new spark plug, which makes them run smoother and with less back-firing. And for the fourth time on this trip I clean the air filters – and it is damn necessary, again.
After all this care giving, we’re anxious to get moving again, though we didn’t finish the entire to do list yet…


First mission today is to find a decent affordable hotel. We find one just 5 kilometers down the road to Cape Coast, just before Takoradi. Casablanca beach resort is everything we've been looking for: nice, clean, large bungalows, a beachside restaurant and bar, a strip of clean beach, welcoming personnel,… They even claim to have Wifi!
All right, sold! We make ourselves at home and only go out for snack supplies. At 15 Ghana Cedi's (7,5 euro) the bottle of Piper-Heidsieck champagne we buy at the bar is a bargain. Together with our free welcome bottle of bubbles from last night and the one that we bought in Ouagadougou, we're up for a New Year's Eve party. We meet at our bungalow for an aperitif and go to the restaurant by half past eight, already a bit tipsy, only to find the staff was just about to leave. Closed! Homemade instant noodles for dinner then. By midnight we go outside only to discover complete silence and a dark sky. Well, what the hell, the company is good and the night guard opens the bar for us, for some more drinks. It's a night to remember…

Our plan was to take a break from travelling and just do nothing for a couple of days. To our surprise Boni shows up at the resort. After we exchanged stories, Boni joins us when we start servicing the bikes. The noise I've been hearing on my bike since Bafoulabé (Mali, nearly 4000 km ago), which was dismissed by the others as being imaginary, turns out to be produced by the chain. It's completely worn and one link is in particularly bad condition. Nicolaas and Tony try to replace the chain set at first, but the nut of the front sprocket has tightened itself too much. Cutting out the worst link and replacing it with a clip will have to do till Accra.

Since we stopped the dolce far niente anyway, don't have proper running water and the wireless network sends out thin air only - no internet - there's no reason to linger here any longer. A day after Boni left direction Accra (where we might meet him again) we follow. We pay a visit to Elmina castle - a late Portuguese, then Dutch, then British slave trade stronghold – and stay the night in Cape Coast. Next day we explore town, have a few drinks and then some more.
For more pics see album "Holidayzzz"
Our time with Tony is drawing to an end, so we're making the most of it. Tomorrow will be our final excursion together: a trip to Kakum national park. There we walk among the tree tops of the rain forest where Africa's loudest tourist group has just scared away all animals. We supplement the experience of Kakum's scenery with a visit to Monkey Forest, owned by the Dutchman we met over a beer. We get to see some of Ghana's wildlife from close by, but behind bars.
Next morning we make Tony wait for us one last time and then we're on our own again, on our way to Accra for the final quest in Ghana: get the visa for onward travel!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Jungle bells, jungle bells

The road from Kumasi to Dunkwa is full of potholes. Unfortunately this doesn't encourage the drivers to slow down or be careful. On the contrary, cars, buses and trucks alike fly trough the bends like it's a rally, often using the opposite lane. Fight or flight. More than once we see trucks that got off the road. The scenery is beautiful though, but I can't help thinking I will probably enjoy it more when we get to the small tracks leaving from Dunkwa. The only problem will be finding the one leading in the right direction.
We reach Dunkwa late in the afternoon with empty stomachs. Despite the hour we decide to have a quick bite to eat. At least that's what we think. Turns out there is no such thing as "fast" food in these parts. By the time we've finished and paid the bill it's half past five. The southward track we pick from our map goes via the village of Nsuaem. The more we ask for it, the more different directions we get sent to. We try to orientate on the relief with the GPS, but this leads us uphill to a telecom antenna. Dead end. Finally we find a track going into the jungle; we're just not sure it's going to Nsuaem. But it doesn't matter. The most important thing is that we want to find a nice spot to put our tents before the dying of the light.
Seven kilometers from Dunkwa, there's a clearing in the impassable wall of plants that leaves room for the bikes, just out of sight of the road. Perfect! We set up our tent and go to sleep. Wow, is it really half past seven already? We quietly listen to the deafening nightly sounds of the forest. Damn those crickets! Birds! Bugs! …Elephants?! All evening we hear thunder and see flashes of lightning from a distant storm, but the rain doesn't come near.
Next morning we rise at dawn, not entirely refreshed though. There's tuna sandwich and wild pineapple for breakfast. Since we consumed a lot of water yesterday, I decide to pack the water filter in my handbag and fasten it on the outside of the luggage just in case we need to ask for water. It's still very misty when we hit the road and the gravel is wet. Added to steep slopes and bad erosion, it makes the track all the more challenging. The few surprised passers-by that we ask for directions advise against continuing. The road will even get worse and it does not go straight to Nsuaem. We'll head back to Dunkwa to find the right way and get some fuel.
Nsuaem road, as it is called, is a lovely track. We're constantly amazed by the stunning rain forest-like environment we're riding through, trying very hard to absorb every impression. We pass through several nameless villages. They all look very well kept and cozy. We only have to get used to the common courtesy, Ghanaian style. Where ever we pass, people shout things at us, sometimes heavily gesturing and with a stern expression on their faces. HEY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHERE ARE YOU GOING? It all comes across very aggressive. But we soon learn that it isn't meant that way, it's just their manner of communicating.
In one of the villages we stop to buy some food; a dozen small bananas, peanuts, eggs,… It doesn't even cost us one euro! Tony wants to find a really small side track to have a pick nick. The narrow walking path we discover should do just fine. Very picturesque; lunch next to the bikes, in the middle of the jungle. Not so easy to make a U-turn after we've finished though…
We continue for the last 20 something kilometers that separate us from Bogoso and the tarred road to the coast. Tony is on a roll and takes the lead. We follow a bit behind, stopping now and then to take pictures or film. The storm from last night left the road with large mud puddles. Great picture material! Confidently I go through all of them in a straight line, but the last catches me by surprise. Before I realize what's happening, I am on the ground. We raise the bike quickly, I start the motor, accelerate, but… nothing. What's this? We examine the bike more closely. F###! Not only did the chain fell off during the slide, I also notice that my handbag with the water filter is gone. Nicolaas rushes back to look for the lost piece of luggage. There's nothing else for me to do but wait. After half an hour Tony arrives. He was waiting at the junction with the tarred road, just 1km away, but has come back to look for us. Together we put the chain back. It's so loose now that we can do it bare handed. An hour and a half later Nicolaas is back. He proudly shows his catch; my bag, water filter included. Pfew!
Proud pose at the beach
For more pics see album "Jungle bells, jungle bells"
After this delay, we ride to the coast in one go. Our first stop will be the repeatedly recommended Green Turtle Lodge. To get there we have to cross another 10kms of bumpy dirt road. We've had about enough. We just want to find a nice place, to relax, have a beer and celebrate New Year's Eve tomorrow. Seems like we have bad karma, because the place turns out to be a disappointment and moreover it's fully booked. And so are about 10 other places nearby. The only hotel that still offers rooms is the ridiculously expensive Busua Beach resort. Beaten as we are, we reluctantly accept, secretly making plans to trash the room to express our malcontent with the bad value for money. We'll be gone tomorrow morning!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

And then we were three

The goal for today is to reach Kumasi, the second largest city of Ghana and the former Ashanti kingdom capital. To do so we can either go straight south over the tarred road or make a detour via the dirt road to Kintampo to visit the nearby waterfalls and then continue via another tarred road to Kumasi. Despite our technical problems on the dirt road yesterday, we opt for the latter. So we look out for a junction just behind the Black Volta river bridge. As usual it comes with a toll booth and a crowd of food sellers. In the first bend I see a junction indeed, so I stop at a small tailor shop to ask if this is the road to Weila and Kintampo. Tony and Isabel join me, but Boni doesn’t seem to have seen us and rides further down the main road. He’ll be back, we say to each other and we order a drink. And fill up the Camelbaks with fresh water. And wait. Still nobody. After 20 min, we decide to split up: Tony prefers a paved road today and will try to find Boni on the road to Kumasi, while Isabel and I will head for Kintampo. After all, we feel that travelling is more than just riding from point A to B.
Fuller Falls
The dirt road is well kept and there is not much traffic. This time the lush greenery bordering the Black Volta doesn’t come to an end but continues along the track. Instead, we are riding along walls of dense vines, bushes and trees now. A few km before Kintampo, we find the Fuller Falls. A Philippine priest has created a quiet, neat prayer park around the basin and felt the urge to warn us with signposts about the life hereafter. The Kintampo Falls are of a more profane kind: it’s nice to observe the local tourists gathering for a swim or a photo shoot. Sadly, there is just a little too much litter around.
South of Kintampo, the landscape changes dramatically: we are riding through remnants of tropical rain forest now, with white-stemmed forest giants towering the road. At the same time, the region seems to be more densely populated and the tarmac is more potholed than ever. It slows us down enormously. We reach Kumasi at dusk, with my engine stalling because of another clogged air filter and rain clouds packing over town. While we are desperately trying to circumvent the huge and feverishly busy market in the center – where taking pictures seems to be a serious offence – to reach the hotel where Tony is waiting for us, a thunderstorm pours down on us. It’s been nearly two months since we had our last rain upon arrival in Rabat. If the dusty roads didn’t become so slippery, we’d nearly welcome a refreshing shower. Soon, we find out that it only makes things worse: nothing has cooled down, but the air is even damper now… Welcome to the wet West-African coastal regions!

For more pics see album "And then there were three"
We meet up with Tony, who hasn’t found Boni on the road to Kumasi and Boni’s telephone seems to be switched off. Anyway, he knows how to contact us, so it’s up to him now. Next day, I clean the air filters for the third time, we visit the market and prepare to leave. A radiologist from nearby Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, staying at the hotel, invites us to have a quick look at the legendary “sword in the stone”, linked to the persistence of the Ashanti kingdom, which is displayed in a pavilion at the hospital premises. Nice opportunity to have a look at the hospital itself. We don’t spend too much time there though, because our next destination is awaiting us: the jungle!

In search of elephants

Despite the fact that the restaurant called to take our order for breakfast, we still have to wait for about 45 minutes before the food actually arrives. Time enough to mount the luggage. But still, as always, Tony has to wait for us. Today he's extra anxious to start early. Before us lay ninety kilometers of dirt road and more over the place where Dominique (another biker Tony and Boni were communicating with) had a lot of trouble and fell. But first we start with the first fifty something kilometers to the junction near the port of Tamale. There we take a right, the road to Larabanga and Mole NP.The track is wide and rather well kept. But there's enough traffic passing to produce entire lengths of nasty washboarding, mixed with sandy parts. Pretty tricky… A pace of 60 to 70kms/h creates the least the vibrations on the washboarding, which are very bad for all loose fitting parts on the bike, but has other disadvantages. At a speed like that you have less time to react to unpredictability's and you generate a much larger dust cloud for the rider behind.
The track takes us through dense bush savannah. Secretly I'm hoping to see some wildlife along the road. Maybe an elephant peering from between the trees like on our previous time in Burkina? But all stays quite between the bushes there's just more bush. Very lovely though! While Boni, Nicolaas and I stop for a pineapple snack, Tony speeds along to reach Mole and have it over with as soon as possible. The broad track continues all the way up to the park's headquarters, which are clearly signposted. We arrive somewhat later than Tony, without any trouble, which makes us wonder where it all went wrong for Dominique?
Though not as charming as many East African alternatives, the park's facilities include several lodging possibilities, a restaurant, a bar and a swimming pool looking out over the park's main watering hole. We discuss what to do next over lunch. Nicolaas and I fancy sleeping at one of the parks campsites. But we would need to take a guide with us, which is something we can't arrange for anymore tonight. Either way the luggage would have posed a problem as well. (No room on the pillion seat) So we settle for the chalet. As Boni's old food injury is still bothering him, we agree to rent a 4WD instead of taking a foot safari. And maybe this will increase our chances to spot elephants…

The alarm goes off at a quarter to six. Too early for our taste, but an excellent time to spot wildlife. Apparently we're the only group that's too lazy, or rather crippled to walk. More room for us in the car! We spend three hours on the roof of a landrover with broken clutch, riding through thick bush savannah, dodging branches along the way, but return a tiny bit disappointed. Despite the very promising huge footprints we found all over the place; no elephant sightings, 'only' five different species of antelope, warthogs, monkeys and a cobra. But we're in luck, just while finishing breakfast; one decides to show himself downhill, within view from the restaurants terrace. Sadly, chasing it for a closer look will probably take too much time. If we want to reach the coast before New Year's Eve, we'd better get moving. By noon we're on the road again.

 In Larabanga we turn right, eastwards, to avoid retracing our steps. We should find a tarred road at Sawla, continuing all the way to Kumasi. But first another seventy kilometers of "bike-shake"… Tony goes ahead because he wants to stay clear of the dust. The three of us follow at a distance. Nicolaas, who is carrying the camera, takes the lead most of the time. We learned our lesson in Morocco so every time he has taken a picture, he would rush past to protect it from the dust. When I realize I've been riding up front for almost half an hour after the last snap shot, I know something's not right. Maybe he waited for Boni? In the rear mirror I see a motorbike's headlight, so I stop and wait for it to overtake me. It's Boni. He hasn't seen Nicolaas either. Better to turn back and look for him… I can think of at least a couple of reasons why he would linger, but I catch myself speeding it up a little just in case there's something seriously wrong.
No need to. A local on a moped bears me the message that he's fixing a flat tire. I relax. We continue until we find Nicolaas, 15kms back, surrounded by Ghana police officers who are lending him a hand. He shows us the impressive screw that somehow got stuck in his rear tire.

They finish the job. We do the necessary photoshoot and push on for the last stretch of unpaved road. In Sawla we find a compressor to pump up the tire some more. In Bole we find Tony again. While waiting (and worrying) he has fixed a place to sleep at the cacao research centre. It's a nice, clean little guesthouse with hot showers and good food. All's well as ends well! 

For more pics see album "In search for elephants"

Saturday, January 15, 2011

X-mas in Africa

Arriving in Ghana, you immediately notice a change. English billboards, well stocked shops, bigger towns and villages, more concrete houses, Africans queuing for the ATM machine, churches, beer commercials, fruit stalls and less than ten people gathering around the motorcycles as we stop. First stop: a maestro or MasterCard accepting ATM for Tony. Second halt: food for Nicolaas. We find fried yams (a kind of sweet potato) and plantain with a chili sauce, served in plastic bags, next to the road. Last stop: Tamale town. Let the hunt for nice hotels, preferably with Wifi begin. We ride around, ask for prices and check out rooms at several places. To leave again after one has inquired about rooms is clearly not the custom in Ghana. People look at us in a very odd way and one hostel keeper almost starts to cry. We finally end up at the first place we went to check out. A pink painted Pakistani run hotel which has clearly seen better days, but at least they have internet… in the lobby anyway.

We make a quick phone call home for Christmas Eve, with the background noise of the town's muezzins chanting their prayers. Then we prepare for dinner at the hotel's restaurant. While we do our best to dress nicely for the occasion, we have to admit, we've looked fancier… But considering the restaurant's setting we look fine enough. Despite the lack of holiday decorations we manage to create a cozy atmosphere with a candle from Tony's room. It turns out to be a nice night, with a tasty three course fusion dinner, good service, cheap gin tonic but most of all excellent company. We talk for hours on the restaurants outdoor terrace before we go to bed.

Next day we learn of some more curious Ghanian customs at breakfast. One can have eggs, toast and a warm drink in a fixed breakfast or eggs, toast and oats, but not oats and a warm drink… Sigh… We wander around town a bit (nothing much to see really) and Tony and I search hard for the ingredients to make tuna sandwiches… Hmmm, a taste of home. The rest of the day we spend on the hotel lobby's porch skyping. Strange to see our family dressed up for dinner in winter's clothes and the snow in the backyard, while we sit outside in the burning sun. Finally we repeat our Christmas formula of last night and prepare for an early start tomorrow morning.

Home sweet home

Finally we come to the Burkinabé side of the border. A bit anxious about what to expect of this reunion 3 years after our first stay, we come to the border police outpost. Immediately a friendly officer advises us to put the bikes in the shadow and invites us in. Very smooth formalities and a friendly chat… We feel right at home. At the customs office 20kms further, the female officers warn us that the road to Ouahigouya is okay but not excellent. In any case the gravel road is in far better condition than the Malian one, where they had told us it was outstanding. Luckily, the only things which are slowing us down are the occasional sheep or dromedaries crossing the road, because Tony is suffering from a common cold and Boni from a backache and they want to reach town.

Ouahigouya is just as we remembered it, and at the same time it's not. It's amazing how the infrastructure has already changed in three years time. They even installed traffic lights! We try to find our hotel from before but find another friendly one opposite an elementary school. School's just finished and herds of children are flocking around the bikes, curious and eager to communicate. What a welcome! We end the day with dinner in "hotel de l'amitié", where service is still slow as usual, but the steak is good. Drinks seem to pose a bigger problem.

To give you an idea of typical conversation in an African venue:
Waiter "What do you want to drink?"
Customers "Do you have 'limonade de pomme' (Boni's favorite)?"
Waiter "We don't have, we have Coke or 'cocktail de fruits'"
Customers "Okay, we'll have two 'cocktails de fruits' then, a Coke, a beer and a large bottle of water"
The waiter comes back after half an hour with a large bottle of water and three beers.
Customers "Euhm, that's not what we ordered"
Waiter "Well we don't have 'Cocktail de fruits' or Coke, but the chef thought you might like beer…"
The road to Ouagadougou is tarred and decently maintained. In Gourcy, we try to find Lilie's former neighbors, but everyone has gone out, so we are soon back on the road. One more pit stop and in a couple of hours we're in Ouaga. On the way to and in the capital we try hard to recall where we passed, stopped, ate, etc. It all feels very familiar. After some searching we find "Le Pavillion Vert"- our jump off point for the time being - tucked away in a dusty neighbourhood. The next couple of days are all about visa, planning, internet, varying repairs, tours around the city, good food (including some excellent Italian ice cream!), bringing back memories and relaxing. It's a strange feeling to have this home away from home. And what's more, Ouaga is the first city we find to be in Christmas atmosphere, with tacky Chinese Santa Clauses and plastic trees.

When we learn that Guillaume, the manager of Le Pavillion, is a biker himself, Nicolaas grabs the opportunity to ask about the possibility of finding tires in Ouaga or further down in West Africa. Seventeen inch tires are really hard to come by and after 11 000kms our Heidenau K60 rears are slowly starting to wear off - especially Nicolaas' which has only about 1mm profile left. We're afraid that's not enough to get to Central Africa, where we planned to change them. The owner knows someone with a small stock of Michelin T63 off-road tires. A misplaced order from the military apparently…
So we buy a third rear tire to take with us and replace the front tires somewhat sooner than foreseen to reduce the ridiculous amount of rubber we are dragging along. People are starting to make fun of our "tire dealership". And then it happens: the first flat tire of our trip. For a minute Nicolaas fears he 'pinched' the tube between rim and lever while changing the front tire. Luckily that's not the case: the culprit appears to be a tiny thorn and Nicolaas's self-esteem remains unaffected…

After five days our plans are fixed. We decided not to wait for the "visa des pays de l'Entente" (a joint visum for Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina and Ivory Coast), which would take at least another three days. No Christmas in dusty Ouaga! We really want to find internet to skype with our families on Christmas day. So we'll head for Tamale in Ghana, making just one overnight stop on the way at Nazinga ranch. We spend the night at the hunters' lodge, where bush buck is on the menu. Yum!

For more pics see "Home sweet home" album

A walk in the park

We need cash and Djenné doesn’t have ATM’s. We wanted to avoid the hassle of the busy river port town of Mopti, off the main road to the north, but now it seems we have to head there anyway. To our satisfaction, Mopti’s sister town Sévaré saves us 25 kms of detour and a lot of time by providing us with money, fuel and a Lebanese-ran overpriced supermarket. We are ready for some bush camping now! We are unsure what to expect from Dogon country; rumor goes it is as empty as Djenné right now, but we fear a massive overload of guides and hustlers, so we are determined to stay away from the most-visited villages along the escarpment. Only we don’t know if our bikes (and we) will be fit for the tracks: our GPS doesn’t indicate quite well if these are on top or on the slope of the escarpment…

We enjoy a nice lunch in Bandiagara before choosing the road crossing the center of the escarpment near Douro. It starts off as a stone-paved single lane track, leading through orchards and farmland into the hills. Fences, houses, everything seems to be so nicely kept that it feels like we are in a theme park. The onion fields are remarkably green and fill the air with a prickling scent. People are waving at us from their fields or donkey carts. Here and there, the road is in worse condition and soon the loosely strapped bag with canned tomatoes and beans escapes unnoticed from Isabel’s bike. Someone along the road is going to have a lucky day!

Just behind a terrible stretch, with loose sand, pointy rocks and a row of donkey carts blocking the passage, we stumble upon a magnificent view from the edge of the escarpment. It would make for a perfect camping spot, but alas we are soon surrounded by children climbing the escarpment via the centuries-old stairways, sometimes carrying large baskets on their heads. They are nice though, braiding Isabel’s hair and eagerly eating the bread we offer them. We are inclined to stay where we are for the night, until a young man appears and summons us to his father - the village chief of Yawa - to ask for his permission. Tony and I get back on the bikes, reluctantly riding back up the horrible slope. In Yawa, we are told that there is no way around staying at the village’s guesthouse. It’s a small compound made of piled stones, on the very edge of the escarpment, just outside the beautiful traditional village. We agree and bring the news to Isabel and Boni. Some sweating and cursing later, we are sipping lukewarm beer and making corned chicken sandwiches. No dry spaghetti tonight, we’ll think of something to do with it tomorrow morning.

We spend a comfortable night under the stars and wake up before sunrise. The chief’s sons Abrahan, Ousmane and their friends are keen on showing us around and we accept their offer. Ousmane takes us through Yawa and further south towards a few huts squirming into the escarpment’s cracks. The settlement has been abandoned and nowadays people inhabit more comfortable thatched huts several meters lower in the valley. Every time we come across a few huts, we are asked for cola nuts, which we don’t have, or money, which we don’t like to give. In the larger village of Douro, back up the plateau, we buy a few things from the “boutique” to give to the elderly sitting under the thick straw roof that serves as their board room. The tea that we hand over to Abrahan as a present for his father is later being prepared and consumed by the son and friends. We really don’t know what to think: where does tradition stop and tourist milking take over? And why doesn’t the turbaned Tamasheq that walks through the village - and is told to be a stranger - give cola nuts to passers-by?

Back in the “guesthouse”, we are wondering if we might have missed the most spectacular sights of Dogon country. Where are the famous hanging villages from the Lonely Planet Highlights? Could it be Nombori, just a few kms north from Yawa? I am dispatched by the others to follow the GPS tracks north and report back to them. Abrahan joins me on the pillion seat and we descend into the valley. At the bottom of the slope, the nice road disappears into deep sand. I decidedly watch the dunes at the horizon and keep on riding. By avoiding the steepest slopes and the rutted main track and instead ploughing through the grass, we arrive at the top of the dunes. From there I can see Nombori and it is indeed a wonderful sight. Why didn’t they take us here this morning?

Isabel, Boni and I decide to meet the challenge and walk up to Nombori before sunset. Boni’s feet still hurt after his fall in Senegal and it promises to be a difficult walk. Ousmane joins us on his pink flipflops. After an hour and a half, we can see Nombori in the distance. Going any further will take a lot of time because of a difficult river crossing, so we call it a day and walk back. The orange and red sunset over the weird rocky formations is just stunning. Dogon country deserves its fame. It is downright beautiful and we are glad we came here despite the negative advice. Now there is only one obstacle to tackle: getting out of here.

To go south, we need to cross the dunes bordering the escarpment and follow a sandy track for about 20 kms, before arriving at the gravel track to Burkina. Early morning, we are ready for the action. With my on-the-ground knowledge of yesterday, I get through the dunes without major difficulties. However Isabel gets stuck in the sand so I walk back, take over and ride her bike to the point where Tony and Boni have joined mine. Isabel catches a ride on the donkey cart of the chap that wanted to help her but didn’t quite know how to ride her bike. From here, the track is less difficult and we progress slowly but steadily towards Koporokendié. It seems as if I have spent too much energy in the dunes, as I am the only one to drop my bike several times in the sand, mostly at very low speed or even when I’m about to ride off. At one point, Boni helps me lift it but forgets to apply the right technique and oops… back ache! From then, his speed slows further down. It takes him so long to arrive at the next village that I rush back, feeling guilty about leaving him with his pain. Upon turning after I’ve found him, I drop the bike another time. That’s it now!!! I’m alone and there is 250kg of dead weight on my left leg. A handful of children are looking at me from a safe distance. No intention to come any closer and help me. After several minutes, I manage to get loose and another quarter of an hour later I have unloaded the bike, lifted it, reloaded it and repaired the hand guards. Only to see Isabel coming in my direction to help… my love. That’s it for today and I am going to be more careful now! Luckily from Koporokendié it’s a straight, though bumpy, gravel road to the border.

For more pics, see album "A walk in the park".