We crossed the Sahara
Sand in my sandwiches
The Brigadier and Dave French who is Irish crossed the Sahara on a couple of BMW 650 singles. The editor was so jealous he flew out to equatorial Africa just to take the Micky out of them.
Motorcycles kindly supplied and prepared by Vines BMW of Guildford
"I've gone to a lot of trouble to get out here" I told the sweaty grinning duo, "I hope you appreciate it."
The Brigadier leaned back in the colonial pool-side chair at the Bungalow Beach Hotel and puffed on a roll up.
"We crossed the Sahara" he trumpeted, blowing smoke contemptuously into my face. Dave French who is Irish grinned broadly, "indeed, indeed" he mused. This wasn't going to be easy, I'd so much wanted to make the trip myself as the time for departure drew near but the logistics of visas, Carnet de Passage and the complications of handing over the late production stages of THE ROAD to someone else, not to mention a considerable apprehension earlier, all contrived to deter me. Not wishing to leave them braving the perils of Africa entirely alone however, I decided to accompany them on the tricky early part of the journey, just far enough to see them well on their way and growing in confidence to the point where they felt confident enough to take on the awesome Sahara. So it was that with a wallet full of credit cards and inoculation certificates I set out from the Brigadier's South London HQ and shunned all temptation to turn back for the safety of home until we reached Guildford.
The next time I saw the boys they were a little grimier but smirking like teenagers who'd scored at the school dance. Dave French who is Irish was, as always, ridiculously overdressed in heavy motorcycle boots and the trousers of his BMW Rallye 2 suit that he declined to take off even in the 90 degree heat of the outdoor bar at the Bungalow Beach Hotel.
"Are you not hot in those trousers?" I asked him.
"No no Oi'm fine, just fine", grinned Dave. The man aint natural !
"We crossed the Sahara" said the Brigadier a second time, looking even more smug.
"OK" I said, taking out a notebook and pen.
"Tell me all about it."
"Sand, rock, road, more sand" said Dave.
"Anything to add?" I asked.
"No that's about it" he concluded laconically, leaning back in his chair and squinting at the sky. "Oh and we saw the sea. Lots of times," he added, looking as though he'd just discovered a deep vein of great literary thought.
"Not cut out for journalism really were you," I commented with a hint of sarcasm.
"But we did cross the Sahara" he shot back with another grin.
We retired to the rooftop veranda bar of the 'Destiny's' restaurant on equatorial Africa's Gambian coast where we stretched out for a sundowner beer as the palm trees bowed gently in a warm Sou' Westerly and the horizon turned crimson beyond the surf. The Brigadier decided to give me the low-down on the trip as I made notes while glancing frequently at Dave French for signs of cynicism. The Spanish section of the trip out was wet and freezing, two days of rain and cold with freezing fog. Not 'til they emerged from the mountains in the south of the country and headed for Malaga did the sun show itself and the temperature begin to rise.
The fast ferry reminds the traveller just how close Africa is to the Southern tip of Europe. About five miles separate the continents and hey presto you are in another world.
"So we arrived in Ceuta, where we stayed the night before heading into Morocco."
"Hang on, I thought you were in Morocco?"
"Ceuta is Spanish Morocco, it's under Spanish jurisdiction and therefore still sort of Europe."
"Sorry I'm not having that, you sailed out of Algeciras in Spain heading South, you're in Africa, right carry on."
The Brigadier buried his face in cupped hands as he endeavoured to light a dead roll up against competition from a strengthening Atlantic sea breeze.
"We tried the Hotel Africa but the management had changed since we were there in 2000 and the place felt more than a little bit dodgy, so we moved on."
"Hang on are you going to list all the hotels you didn't stay at?"
"Look you wanted a story, now just shut your face and make notes."
"We stayed at the Hotel Tripp - one of those places which is full of business box rooms."
"I take it the room was small?"
"Not so much small as a clone of every other business hotel that you see in Europe."
"Do you have the dimensions?"
"No I don't have the bloody dimensions, does it matter?"
"I just thought you were going to give me all the details, if we're going to name hotels you didn't stay at we might as well measure the ones where you did."
"Nine foot six by eight foot seven OK!"
I pondered the geometry for a moment.
"Did you two share a bed?"
"We did not!" interjected Dave French who is genetically Irish and emphatically unambiguous."
"Mr Carey-Clinch I think you should tell us about your dinner."
"Pork chop, half raw, I had to send it back."
"You ordered pork in a hot Arab country?" Dave French who is Irish nodded agreement with my implicit assessment of this stupidity as the barman chased an airborne beer mat across the wind swept patio. The Brigadier sighed
"Ceuta is not hot and it's not Arab - it's Spanish. Don't you ever take any notice? Anyhow, the next day we went into Morocco -- into Africa proper. First there are the formalities and this border is famous for hustlers, touts and fake 'officials', waiting to pounce on the unwary." Unfortunately for our intrepid duo, the bikes, both BMW Dakar 650s, were registered to the BMW company, not the riders.
"Ooh this is a problem, this is a major problem" groaned the customs officer, wagging his head sadly in a pantomime of affected concern. The words "this is a problem" are of course Moroccan for "hurrah all my Christmases have come at once, now open your wallet effendi."
"We had to pay 80 Euro a bike" conceded the Brigadier in the manner of someone who is convinced there was no alternative. Dave French who is Irish choked on his 'Jul Brew' beer.
"Had to, my arse" he expostulated, "if Oi had my way . . . "
"Well anyway we got into the country in just over half an hour" interrupted the Brigadier, "we could have been there all day arguing the toss and still ended up paying - they had us by the balls with that one" he continued, in the dismissive manner of someone who wishes to proceed.
"So, nice and hot now?"
"No, it was pissing with rain, we were in the Rif Mountains heading south and it just rained and rained." The Brigadier cleared his throat to continue . . . "How many cigarettes had you smoked by this time?" I interjected.
"Five hundred and forty two," he said tartly. "The roads were treacherously slippery with diesel, so we took a short cut on a road we'd discovered in 2000 in the direction of the Motorway junction at Larache. This was an excellent riding road, lots of slow twisties which bought out the best in the bikes. The single cylinder BMW GS 650 Dakars are not best suited to motorway mile crunching but on roads like this they excel.
"Once on the motorway We settled down for a good ride all the way to Rabat, keeping to about 70mph."
"Weren't you afraid a camel might step out?"
"Camels aren't often seen in this part of the country."
"No camels!? OK stop right there, are you absolutely sure you were in Morocco?" I looked to Dave.
"To be sure to be sure, we were" he said in his broad Celtic brogue, because you see, Dave French is Irish. By now the wind was getting ridiculous and Banjul's electricity supply had failed as it failed every night at this time. I went off to pay the bill and headed downstairs after the others, losing my footing in the dark and falling backwards on to a merciless marble step that winded me and bruised my ribs. Down at sea level I followed the smell of Golden Virginia toward a small glow in the darkened bar which identified a trio of shapes comprising the Brigadier, Mrs Peel, who had recently married him and Dave French who hadn't, though they shared a very small room earlier in the adventure if you remember.
"I've just had a nasty fall, I think I may have broken a rib" I announced.
"We'll take the road via the Barra ferry towards Kaolack" said the Brigadier to Mrs Peel without glancing at me.
"You don't give a damn about my ribs, do you ?" I asked, somewhat disturbed by this callous indifference.
"I'm mortified by your misfortune" replied the Brigadier, sceptically, reaching for his lighter as a table cloth inflated and flipped over his arm, "but we've got to sort the route out for tomorrow's Riders for Health field trip."
"Great," I said "you sort your route out, don't mind me."
As the ocean front hotel was beginning to resemble the foredeck of a destroyer in a Force Eight we retired inland to the Harmartan Restaurant which boasted independent lighting and a gently crooning reggae-esque trio beating out a surreal version of 'When the Saints come Marching In.'
"Now then, where were we?"
"Morocco, Rabat. Dave had an excellent Chicken Tagine and I had a wonderful French onion soup served by a very pretty waitress."
"Stop! where's the picture of the waitress ?"
"There isn't one."
"Because we're not all as sad as you. Now then, the bread was wonderful, you want good bread, come to North West Africa. "We made a bit of a tactical error the next day."
"We?" interjected Dave, rising from his grilled Barracuda in herb butter.
"Brigadier's cock up". conceded Craig magnanimously. "We should have headed down the coast but we went for Marrakesh which involved a long ride across a plain before reaching the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The motorway marked on the map was non existent and we spent a lot of time dodging knackered lorries. "Riding toward Agadir we found ourselves on the road to Essaouira which provided a taste of things to come. The area was just devoid of anything living, there was just all this nothingness and then it got dark.
"We hadn't planned to ride after dark at all but it kept happening on this trip. It's not a great idea, you need to see the road; there can be animals on it or unlit vehicles, you don't want to be on the road after dark in this part of the world. "Anyway time was pressing and we wanted to get as far as Essaouira, so in the gathering gloom we tucked in behind a tour bus that was doing between 60 and 70mph on the bending road, using the logic that it would probably clear any obstacles in our way. Some time later we reached our destination and being tired, stopped at the first hotel we saw..."
"As opposed to one Oi'd been to before just down the road a bit that would have cost half as much." said Dave French who is Irish and is used to Polish prices as he lives in Poland.
"Well it was quite a place anyway," continued the Brigadier, "a big traditional kind of hotel based on the Alhambra with Moorish vaulted columns and Arabic carvings."
"Did you have sheep's eyes for dinner?"
"No, no sheep's eyes."
"Did you have any sheep's eyes at any time on this trip?"
"What about Dave, did he have any?"
"Not unless he quietly chomped some down and didn't tell me about it."
"Oi certainly did not" added Dave French who is neither French nor it would seem a lover of sheep's eyes.
"So it was a bit of a sheep-eye free trip really then?"
"You could call it that" said the Brigadier a little wearily.
"What did you have then, burger and chips?" "No we didn't, I can't remember - something, we ate something."
"Tell me about Essaouira."
"We spent the morning there, they've got a good fish market and we saw fish being unloaded from small boats -- Sardines galore. Local boats were being built on the quayside using very traditional methods. It was just like taking a trip into the past. We also took a walk through the Medina which was very atmospheric and also a step back in time, loads of artisans, wood carvers galore but no hassling from touts which was great."
"Did you smoke a hubbly bubbly?"
"No, just Golden Virginia but we did have some coffee."
"Made by Bedouins in Jalabahs?"
"Strangely no, it was made by a Hindu couple using an Italian coffee machine." The Brigadier looked at me with a provocative half smile on his face intended to convey a sense of smug superiority before continuing. I said nothing.
"We did 170kms on bendy mountain roads heading toward Agadir. A relaxed ride compared to the day before and full of great photo opportunities. This was the first time the road went alongside the Atlanticc coast which was to become so familiar. Local kids kept hassling us for 'cadeau' whenever we stopped for a break, or to take a closer look at the Argan trees. One of them tried to nick Dave's bottled water."
"I thought that was your trick?"
"That's just an ugly rumour."
"Hmm I think I have a picture of Dave lying parched in the desert on a previous trip with you riding off into the distance with all his water."
"Taken by Achmed the fortuitously located, I presume?"
"The very same, I shall see if I can find it, our members should know the ugly truth. Did anything else happen today?"
"Dave rode off into the sand dunes."
"To stop you nicking his water?"
"No he just fancied it, he's like that."
"Did you ever get to Agadir?"
"We did, and took a day off. We walked over to the port to look at the huge fishing fleet - the largest sardine fleet in Morocco I believe. I chatted to some dockworkers who were cooking sardines on traditional brochettes and went on board one of the larger boats to take some pics. Then we took a 'petit-taxi' to the old Kasbah high above the town.
"The old Kasbah and town of Agadir was destroyed in a huge earthquake in 1961. About 18,000 people were killed, with many more dying of disease afterwards. The destruction was so total that they treated the whole site as a mass grave and buried the lot under tons of stones. Only the Kasbah walls survive and these are now lit at night. Agadir was rebuilt as a new town and tourist resort a short way down on the coast.
"After Agadir we started heading into real desert and after some wonderful mountain riding through the Anti Atlas, we headed out into increasingly arid terrain. We were now on the Sahara Atlantic Route proper - almost no junctions or deviations for over 1,000 miles - a single strip of tarmac joining North Africa and Europe with West Africa - the only complete road across the Sahara. There we came across the kissing camels at Tan-Tan and stopped to take a picture. These are huge statues of camels in concrete which mark the symbolic start of the Sahara. Shortly before this, we met some of the Amsterdam to Banjul Challenge drivers. The challenge involves driving old cars across Europe and through the Sahara to Banjul in the Gambia - our own destination where the participants auction their vehicles to raise money for Gambian charities. We were just standing around, taking a fag and photo break, when there was a screech of tyres and these Dutch guys in a battered Renault covered in stickers and graffiti pulled up for a chat. We kept running into Challenge teams all the way to Gambia. They were great folk, who made the desert seem a less empty place.
"All in all, there were over 30 cars, with more to follow in the coming weeks. The challenge is also done from the UK, with the Plymouth/Banjul Challenge taking place each year. I think the UK challenge was the original one.
"The land flattened out after Tan-Tan Plage, it was just utterly featureless and empty, riding with the Atlantic appearing sometimes on our right and the sun in our eyes to the South. The sun got really tiring, always somewhere ahead, always in our eyes, absolutely no respite. It would start on one side of our track early in the morning and work through an arc to the other by sunset, where the burning orb was all that you could see at the end of the road ahead."
"So this was a bit grim ?"
"A bit, but in contrast it was very peaceful when we stopped the engines, the quiet was something unusual, only deserts are this quiet. The peace steals over you and suddenly the desert is a wonderful place to be and you appreciate that what appears featureless when you are riding is in fact a vastly contrasting land of colours and textures, with small plants and wildlife. We had planned to stop briefly at Tarfaya to look at the memorial for the French aviation pioneer Antoine de St Exupery who'd crashed there, but it was just about dark and we still had 90km to do before reaching our destination for the day -- Laayoune, across the border in the Western Sahara.
"Reaching Laayoune, we booked into a place which I will call Hotel Stench. The plumbing didn't work properly so water kept backing up in the pipes and the whole place stank of excrement by the following morning. But if one ignored the smell, it was comfortable and cheap otherwise. We took dinner and beer in a different hotel, a Parador, which had a nice courtyard among palm trees and fountains. Nice after a day of desert riding. "Laayoune is the capital of Western Sahara, or Sahara Occidental. The country is disputed territory between Morocco and the Polisario, an independence group who hold vast territory in the east of the country and across the border with Algeria. Morocco took over the country and marched thousands of civilians (voters) in during the so called 'Green March' many years ago and has since invested billions in the country's infrastructure. This is aimed at encouraging civil support for Moroccan rule in a UN-brokered referendum on the future of the country which will be held at some point in the future.
"Until a few years ago threats of Polisario attacks meant that the Atlantic route could only be travelled as part of an army convoy, but a lasting truce now makes this unnecessary. The country remains flooded with troops and UN 'Observers' who seem to do little but hang around in restaurants in Laayoune and Dakhla, or drive around in Landcruisers 'observing'. The result is a totally tax free haven of new towns and villages, solid modern infrastructure and a very odd feel. Completely safe though - even the most ardent independence supporter realises the stupidity of attacking overland tourists.
"The next day we headed towards Dakhla, covering 400kms of vast empty desert. The landscape constantly changes though, with plains of dunes contrasting with vast mesas, plunging cliffs and deep chasms in the desert floor. The ocean is never far away and the occasional shipwreck adds colour to the beautiful coastline and vast miles of sandy beaches.
"Despite the emptiness, we never seemed to be quite alone. The road was fairly busy with commercial traffic and we saw many beaten up old trucks transporting fish from Dakhla to the markets in the north. Many people lived on the cliffs, eking out a precarious existence from fishing. Sometimes we'd be stopped on the side of the road taking in the view, when some character would come walking or cycling by. Very strange given the vast distance between any kind of habitation. In over 500 miles we saw only a handful of villages and just two large towns.
"Police and army checkpoints were frequent. Bored officials would take down passport contents in minute detail in old exercise books and the atmosphere was mostly relaxed, except in one place where an agitated official led us to wonder if we were about to run into problems. Feigning ignorance and smiling a lot usually helps though.
"The Lonely Planet described Dakhla as the last place on earth. Riding across a wide empty landscape of dunes along the narrow peninsular into the town certainly reinforces an image of the end of the world, but the town is clean, modern and very welcoming and full of football mad teenagers.
"We stayed at the Hotel Doumes and ate brochettes in a nice little place near the port. Afterwards we repaired to the posh Hotel Regency Sahara in search of beer, which is mostly only served in big hotels in Morocco and Western Sahara, the Muslim religion frowning on activities such as drinking.
"Dakhla boasts the largest fishing fleet in Moroccan territory and it was here that we met an Irish fisherman."
"You met an Irish fisherman?"
"We met an Irish fisherman."
"Did you know him?" I asked Dave.
"Oddly enough Oi did not." he replied with what sounded like genuine surprise. The Brigadier continued.
"Riding South the next day the scenery became spectacular. Mesas galore, rolling sand dunes, rocky escarpments, no towns, nothing - just empty constantly changing desert landscape and no traffic. This was because the road only had one destination. Before leaving town we filled the extra fuel cans, as we had learned that fuel supplies were unreliable from here to Nouadhibou in Mauritania. This was our first taste of riding with that extra weight high up on the pillion seats, but the GS's handled the cans as though they didn't exist.
"At mid day we stopped for an hour at a lovely place where the road came almost to the edge of the ocean. A peaceful beach with golden sand and small rocks where tiny birds picked about for the odd bit of shell fish. Dave went swimming in the sea. An indulgence at odds with the image of arduous desert travel.
"Talking of sea shells, it's worth mentioning that much of the Sahara lay on the bed of the sea in millenniums past. A reminder of this is the huge number of what are effectively fossil shells which litter the desert just about everywhere. Wherever we stopped the ground was covered in the things, also billions of tiny snail shells. Ancient and brittle. You see the same thing in West Africa, the ground is simply full of prehistoric shells. So many indeed, that they find their way into hardcore for roads and are mixed with tar, instead of stones, to make the tarmac which paves many of the roads in the region.
"We filled up with fuel for the final time at a petrol station affectionately known as G1 due to the waypoint in my BMW Navigator II GPS. This place lay in the middle of absolutely nowhere and boasted a small café and stinking toilets. Reports that this station didn't always have fuel were thankfully unfounded and our jerry-cans remained full. "Eventually we reached the border of Western Sahara at Fort Guerguarat on the Mauritanian border. This was also where the road ran out, with only a poor looking piste running ahead into the distance through the minefield beyond the border. There were several European tourists with a variety of beaten up old vans including a pair of cyclists - how do they do it ? These characters were mainly French and German. After formalities were completed, we followed some German vans through the minefield which runs for hundreds of miles along the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania, a legacy of an old dispute between the two countries. This was a truly appalling 2-3 km stretch of piste, full of sand traps and jagged rocks, but perfectly rideable with care and with little real danger of getting stuck - or blown up as long as you stick to the defined track. Curiously there were people living in the minefield, scratching a living selling parts from wrecked cars and buying and selling items from people passing through - a curious existence, living neither in one country or another."
"It was a noice spot roit enough," added Dave French who is Irish. We all looked at him in silence.
"Well it was, it just was a very noice spot." I steered a wood lice off my notebook and recorded the fact. "Minefields make nice homes."
"The Mauritanian border was very clean, and efficient despite the obvious drop in living standards compared to the modern concrete border facilities a few kilometres back and no-one sought bribes. The army, police and customs people received us in wooden huts and made neat entries of our details in exercise books using rulers. These characters lived at their posts and each hut contained bedding, cooking gear and personal items, in addition to the small desk which was their office. The army hut also sported a highly polished AK47 propped in the corner. Everything was very relaxed and the police invited us to sit on their beds and chat, while they laboriously filled out our passport details. Formalities concluded, including the payment of a 10 Euro fee to the police and 10 Euro for the Mauritanian Carnet de Passage and we were on a brand new road heading towards Nouadhibou, 40k away.
"Nearly all the cars we saw in Mauritania were wrecks, only vaguely resembling the Renault 5s, 12s and Mercedes vehicles that they once were. Shot suspension, battered panels, windows missing, belching smoke. Most of them driving around at night with no lights (often the light fittings simply weren't there any more) which posed another hazard.
"It was pitch black as we arrived in Nouadhibou, to be greeted by thronging crowds of people on the streets, with unlit cars slowly weaving in and out of the streets and pavements, following no recognisable pattern of driving standard - a very laissez-faire mix of pedestrians and people with everyone having right of way. Dire poverty was immediately obvious.
"Any kind of street lighting was rare and dim. and seeing nowhere to stay and still dealing with the culture shock of a new and very different country - at night we were feeling desperate when the most useful tout of the trip appeared in a battered Renault as if by order and led us to the Hotel Oasian, one of the places we had earmarked from the Lonely Planet. No luck though -- it was full of UN types having a conference on immigration. Our friendly tout guided us instead to the Hotel Sahel on one of the few streets with any kind of lighting. Just talking to the calm man on the reception desk and finding we had somewhere good to stay, we felt all the cares of the day just washing away. That night we dined in style on huge fish, washed down with Flag beer, at the very clean Canaria Restaurant.
"Daylight revealed a clean but dusty and seemingly half built small city, which although poor, had a businesslike air about it. Lots of street trade, people busy with the daily grind of eking out an existence. Loads of scrapheap cars engaged in all kinds of trade around the town, or being nursed back to life for yet another final wheezing few weeks of smoke belching travel. One had the impression that even the most sorry looking wreck would still be slowly trundling the streets of Nouadhibou long after cars that were pouring off the production lines of Europe and Japan that very day had met their demise on Europe's oh so modern and progressive road network.
"After buying some vehicle insurance, which later turned out to be valid for the entire French speaking area of West Africa, we had a nervous hour when we found that petrol was a rare commodity indeed. We tried almost every fuel station in town before finally tracking down some leaded 'Essence Super' at a small garage with a huge queue. Bye bye catalytic converters!
"And so out of town to join the long anticipated new road to Mauritania's capital Nouakchott, 480 kilometres away. The new road is not yet marked on any map and with varying reports about it, the whole route had gained mythical status in our minds. Would it be a breeze, or did the thing even exist? We had full tanks and full jerry cans, so fuel wasn't an issue, but would it be an easy day's ride, or two days hard slog through the sand?
"Then we met the famous ore train, whose track runs alongside the road for a time. This was something else, the longest train in the world which carts ore between Choum in the east of the country to the port at Nouadhibou. It's an incredible sight, about 150 wagons hauled by three huge engines, some who have seen it regard it as one of the modern wonders of the world. A sluggish giant of a vehicle whose cargo of ore was topped with miscellaneous bodies waving as they trundled dustily by, like something from the early days of trains in Westerns."
"A bit like Blazing Saddles eh?"
"A bit...", conceded the Brigadier hesitantly.
"Did you spot any Irishman on the waggons Dave French ?"
"None that Oi knew" replied Dave with an alacrity that suggested he'd anticipated the question. The Brigadier took advantage of the break to roll another ciggie which he fired up before continuing.
"This was the first truly hot day, which I dealt with by swallowing rehydration salts and sugars in my water. One of the dangers of drinking large volumes of water is that the body's salts, that it needs to sustain electrolyte levels, get washed out and you need to replenish them. When good water tastes disgusting you know something is going wrong.
"You've had this trouble before, haven't you?"
"I have, it's awful."
"Do you think it's due to the fact that you're genetically inferior?" The Brigadier bristled briefly before a nauseating smile spread over his face.
"I've crossed the Sahara," he crowed.
Dave French grinned.
"Go on" I said.
"As it turned out, the new road was one of the best we've ever seen. It put many of our own European roads to shame - miles and miles of perfect well marked blacktop. A bit boring as it turned out. This section of the Mauritanian Sahara is flat, featureless and just a whole lot of hot riding miles, with the odd tin hut and characters selling either diesel from drums, or food from tents or shacks masquerading as restaurants.
"It's worth mentioning that there are no real fuel stations. One or two small places are under construction but they don't have any fuel, or just some diesel. Dave reckons that there will be petrol at some of these places soon. He could be right, but I wouldn't hold my breath. The thing is that outside of the towns people don't tend to use petrol vehicles -- just about everything runs on diesel. The scarcity of petrol in a large town like Nouadhibou does not bode well for regular supplies of 'Super' in the desert. I would strongly advise anyone taking this route to make sure that if they run on petrol, they have enough fuel on board to make the entire crossing between Nouadhibou and Nouakchott - 480 kilometres.
"Later that day, about 200k from Nouakchott, we saw something awful which gave some food for thought. Just off to the side of the road lay a couple of decapitated camels still loaded up with riding gear. It seemed to me that something very bad had happened here, maybe some kind of inter-tribal ruck; the smell was terrible and we just kept on going."
"You'd never make a war photographer would you."
"I didn't want a picture I wanted to forget about it. Things sometimes magnify themselves in your mind when you're deep in the desert." We pondered this for a second before the Brigadier continued.
"We rode through a massive rainstorm later in the day and saw some Bedouins on camels trying to protect themselves from the downpour.
Once again we found ourselves riding after dark for the last 100k to our destination. It was during this effort that we spotted a faint light up ahead moving back and forth in the gloom. Luckily we pulled up in time to see that it was a checkpoint guard waving a dim torch just ahead of an unlit steel barrier across the road. The cops here were quite jovial and, with the arrival of two French trucks, it almost seemed as though we were about to have a party by the side of the road. "From here we had a police escort for the last 10k into Nouakchott provided by a lone cop on a 175cc Honda . He led us to the Hotel Sabel on the beach where we ate deep fried fish and chips and watched mice scurry about the place.
"The surprising helpfulness and generosity of people that you meet when you travel is one of its attractions and more than makes up for the bad times. The owner, who spoke perfect English, handed me his mobile to call home - no charge, no worries, just total trust."
"Did you nick his water?"
"No I didn't, now just write down what I tell you.
"Next day we were away at first light towards Rosso and the crossing into Senegal. Nouakchott in the light of day is an impoverished place for a capital city. The beach area where we had stayed is known to be quite dodgy and is some way out of the main town. Between there and the main town the whole area is one huge stinking rubbish tip, with characters picking their way through piles of refuse looking for things to recycle. Much of it was burning, lending a Dante's Inferno-esque feel to the place in the low early morning light.
"An hour out of town and we saw this lorry that had crashed when a front wheel had fallen off late at night. It had spilt its load of paint cans over the road, though these had already been carefully stacked up for collection. Anyway while we were stopped and I was soaking my clothes to keep cool - with my own water before you ask - a man came over to explain to Dave how you can extract seeds from spiky plants.
"And how do you extract seeds from spiky plants?"
"Oi'll explain it to you later, so Oi will" said Dave French, the seed extraction expert. The Brigadier lit another rollie and continued.
"Everything felt different now, more black African than Arab. There was more colour, more exuberance and it felt less foreign, something which Dave put down to what he called the Brixton experience, an issue of familiarity. The desert slowly gave way to Sahel, lots of red sand and thin forests of low trees. The road steadily deteriorated, becoming more and more potholed, but still good enough to keep a steady 50mph. Then we came to the Rosso crossing.
"The border crossing between Mauritania and Senegal at Rosso is reputed to be the worst in Africa. There are formalities at Rosso-Mauritania followed by a short ferry crossing to Rosso-Senegal where more bureaucracy has to be faced to get into Senegal. Stories abound of rip offs, people having to buy their passports back, huge delays, hustlers, theft, threats, extortion and other nightmares. "Our plan was to take the piste to Diama Dam and the more relaxed border crossing there.
Unfortunately, we missed the turn and ended up at the gates to the customs compound, immediately surrounded by a great throng of jabbering faces and people all demanding our attention, offering 'assistance', issuing instructions. It was like entering the gates of hell, people grabbing the bikes, guys in uniform yelling in our faces.
"We started to turn the bikes around to get the hell out of there, when a guy in police uniform yelled at us to stop. I ignored him and continued to turn as another thug shouted "you have to listen to him, he is the police" Dave looked the 'cop' up and down and said contemptuously;
"So if yer a real cop, where's yer gun sonny?" The guy was one of the fake cops that we'd been warned about.
"Dave, let's find the Diama piste" I called out. The thug said; "no, no, no -- Diama piste no good, it closed!".
"Fine" I replied, "We're tryin' it anyway" and roared off with the thug running after me shouting "Diama OK, Diama OK!" in a final desperate attempt to fool me into giving him cadeau.
"Dave followed tout-suite and thanks to the good offices of a genuine Army guy, we soon found ourselves on the sand and dirt road to Diama Dam - a relatively easy 100k of gentle mixed surface piste riding alongside a dyke which led through a beautiful national park full of birds and other wildlife adjacent to the River Senegal. Much of it was packed earth, but there were plenty of areas of sand which we had to take steadily due to only having road tyres. Some corrugated patches as well. The bikes took all this in their stride though.
"We enjoyed the piste so much that we kept stopping to take photographs and shoot film, so it was quite late in the day when we exited Mauritania and rode over the dam into Senegal. Here we had to pay to get through a barrier before we even got to the customs post - a completely corrupt road toll. Fatigue got the better of me and when the grinning idiot, whose job it was to take bucksheesh from travellers, said, in French, that the fee was 10 Euro, I heard it as 100 Euro. Dave went ballistic and refused to pay. Fortunately, this misunderstanding was soon sorted and, although we resented having to pay it, Mr Grin got his 10 Euro. Customs and police were more relaxed and there were no hustlers, though the process cost 50 Euro each, all of it in 'official' bribes. No escaping it though. The Customs officer was genuinely pleased that we had proper Carnets de Passage. Despite many warnings, people are still trying to cross into Senegal without this vital but expensive document. A morose looking German hippy with an old Mercedes van bore testament to this, he didn't have the necessary bits of paper and was in for a long and expensive night as he tried to argue for the faint possibility of a three day Laissez-Passer. I didn't give much for his chances. The advice on this is specific and very clear - No Carnet, no entry to Senegal - Beware travellers! (The RAC are the only organisation in the UK who issue them).
"Piste gave way to brand new road which was Just as well because it was pitch black by this time. Mosquitoes had also got into my clothes and bitten my arms to shreds. We were heading for a travellers gem - Zebrabar - a campsite run by a Swiss couple which caters almost entirely for overland travellers in vehicles. We'd heard that it was a great place to stay and pressed on past St Louis, despite having no directions apart from a few GPS waypoints.
"We left the main road and set off down a side road, following the waypoints, until our progress was obstructed by thorny branches across our path. 'Hello' we thought, 'what's this, some kind of ambush?' Was the GPS playing up, what lay ahead? We were tired and this kind of uncertainty late at night is not good for morale. We rode cautiously between the branches peering into the gloom with ears on alert and then suddenly the world underwent one of those inversions that make overlanding so satisfying. In a minute we emerged from darkness and bewilderment and uncertainty into another world. Zebrabar.
"Lights shone, people sat at tables drinking beers and eating; it was surreal. Lying on the coast in the Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie among beautiful beaches and teeming wildlife, the place was a mini paradise reminiscent of the set of the movie, 'The Beach.' This was a real oasis of joy that operated on solar power, windmills and trust, illustrated by the bar which worked on a help yourself principle with a book to mark off beers in alongside your name. Really good kharma, bit hippyish, but simply great.
"We spent two nights at Zebrabar and didn't want to leave, it was one of those places where you just feel comfortable and we didn't want to move but we had to."
"Was that because you'd pinched all their water?"
"No it bloody well wasn't, I paid for everything.
"We took the time to visit nearby St Louis where we watched the world go by on a pavement cafe amidst the crumbling splendour of old French colonial architecture. A relaxed town which is well worth a visit - famous for jazz I understand.
"Back at the campsite, a very friendly and knowledgeable, but unfortunately 'been everywhere and done it all' German guy assured us that Banjul was an easy one day trot from here , oh yeah sure. So tearing ourselves away from this haven we headed south once again along Senegal's respectable roads and interesting villages, a great contrast from the poverty and bleakness of Mauritania. Vibrant and colourful, friendly people and lots of things to see. Each village seemed to specialise in something different. One would be full of vegetable and melon sellers, another would have streets lined with mechanics' workshops and so on.
"In addition to regular car and truck traffic, battered, brightly coloured Mercedes vans with Touba painted on the front, sometimes with no windows or doors, ran an ad hoc bus service between villages and towns.
"This was classic picture book Africa with thatched roofed mud huts and huge Baobab trees. Police checkpoints were regular and relaxed. We stopped for the heat of the day in a village which specialised in water melons and also doubled as a roadside truck stop. Here we ate bananas while sheltering from the blistering heat and watched girls operating a trade in bottled water.
"We noticed the waiting truck drivers checking the seals - if the locals where worried about the water being clean, then clearly we should too! I decided to use the bottle I bought to douse my clothes instead of drinking it, after noticing that the seal had been cleverly tampered with.
"It was here that one of the local youths came up to me with an injured and septic finger that I treated with TCP before binding it up. Blow me down if he didn't then demand money as well - enough already! The police here took an interest in us and wanted to see paperwork including our insurance papers which we thought we didn't have - we hadn't yet realised that our Mauritanian insurance covered Senegal as well. We showed them our Green Cards which seemed satisfy them, but a look at our driving licences aroused suspicion in my case as I have numerous license categories including HGV. The suspicion was that this documentation must be phoney.
"They accepted it eventually and we made the last 100km or so to Kaolack in one hellish hot wind blast from the east. Feeling a bit woolly headed from this, we checked into a cockroach and mosquito infested hotel whose saving grace was wheezing air conditioning, and sloped off for a beer at the more expensive Hotel Paris.
"Kaolack, despite being a filthy refuse strewn town, boasts the second largest covered market in Africa and an exceptional restaurant in the shape of Le Brasero Chez Anouar, run by a locally born Frenchman, a refugee from the era of French administration who describes himself as a white negro. Excellent lamb kebabs and Gazelle beer rounded off the day nicely as huge ceiling fans stirred the hot night air - all very colonial.
"The last 100kms to Banjul in the Gambia took most of the day. The Senegalese customs were straightforward on exit from this excellent country, but though it was good to be speaking English again, the Gambian officials were somewhat more than thorough. We'd been approached by a plain clothes officer who flashed an ID and asked to look in our Metal Mule boxes. Dave expressed doubts about his legitimacy and scuttled off to get the opinion of one of the cops in the police post. These doubts earned us a root and branch exploration of everything in the boxes, with our 'Interide' two-way radios and extensive medical kit subjected to additional scrutiny. Eventually I was taken into a room and feeling a bit desperate by this time I said, 'look, we've got no drugs, no guns, nothing illegal, nothing worth hiding, what do you want?' At this the officer's mood changed for the better and he became quite friendly.
"All the officials at the border seemed to know about Riders for Health, some were themselves involved in local charities and as a result we spent more time than planned sitting with cops and customs officers talking about healthcare charities and Riders.
"The 10km road from the border to the ferry from Barra Terminal over the Gambia River to Banjul was a potholed and rutted disgrace and the ferry was worse. A long wait in blistering sun, as big metal gates were opened and closed innumerable times to prioritise those who'd paid the required bribes. Eventually we were let on to a floating cattle truck of a ferry with standing room only that gave us an insight into the life of a battery hen.
"The ferry company operated on the principle that the ferry only left when not one more person or vehicle could be crammed on board. Smashed and battered lorries jostled for an inch of room with beaten up cars and pick-ups of various marques. Pedestrians were crammed into every available space, with many trying to sell cold drinks in plastic bags, or offering to polish shoes. In one cramped corner a motorcyclist stood quietly by his Yamaha 200. He turned out to be a health worker from Riders for Health and we grinned as we recognised that both our bikes and his carried the same logo. Dave spent most of the three mile journey over the river chatting to this guy about his work for Riders.
"Nearly an hour later and the wheezing, overloaded ferry deposited us in the appalling squalor and heat of Banjul, Africa's smallest and probably most impoverished capital city. Taking the first route out of town through hectic and squalid streets, filled with desperate looking street traders and vehicles which really were beyond final redemption, we rode the rutted and potholed roads in the direction of Serekunda, 20km away, and the Atlantic beach resorts where we rendezvoused with Barbara and Mutch."
"And that's where you saw me standing at the reception of Bungalow Beach, though you'd thought I wasn't coming and completely blanked me."
"Did I? oh sorry. More concerned with seeing me wife after a long trip."
"Never mind." I added, no offence taken.
Regular readers of The ROAD will understand that the purpose of the trip was in part to honour the efforts of Simon Milward the former FEMA General Secretary who died in a motorcycle accident in Mali last year and to promote the funding of the health care initiative he was involved with in Inonesia. In a manner of speaking the object of the excercise was also to finish Simon's ride.
The original plan had been to bury a time capsule at the site of Simon's accident in Mali but that posed a number of problems. We had learned that the road was a rough one and was likely to be developed in the future. What Dave and the Brigadier had seen on their epic journey south made them seriously question the likelihood of such a memorial lasting any length of time. What prospect was there that the canister would not be ploughed up, or stolen by one of the innumerable people who seem to pop up from behind a stone whenever you stop anywhere? It seemed likely that if locals were to spot the efforts in progress, there was a high probability that they might dig down to explore after we'd gone.
On reflection a fresh option presented itself. During our visit to the Riders For Health (RFH) base we learned that Simon had been heading there when he crashed and it seemed safer and more appropriate to bury the capsule at the location where he was headed - kinda 'Journey's End' or similar. Phone calls were made to Simon's mother and brothers and RFH themselves consulted. All were in favour of the plan and so it was that with the four of us present, plus the RFH Director and staff, we dug a hole by the wall at their HQ and after a brief service during which we remembered Simon's life and the profound effect he had had on us all, we buried the canister which contained a number of personal messages and Simon's artefacts.
A plaque will be made to put on the wall above the spot and should Riders For Health move their base the memorial and canister will travel to the new site so that a permanent place of remembrance can be established.
We learned much at Riders for Health which will help the team at Motorcycle Outreach develop the legacy that Simon left for us. Look out for a major feature on RFH's Gambian work in the next issue.
So what happened to our intrepid Sahara crossing duo next? In the next edition of the ROAD, the Brigadier relates more tales of sand, roads and African culture. Read about the northward journey that they made both separately and together. Still to come: The Guns of Navarone, the Road of Hope, digging out of sand, 'illegal' alcohol deals, hot Sahel days, cold mountain nights, tales from the Kasbah, the long grinding miles of winter, repairs in Rabat and Berber's Belly.
Words, Ian Mutch and Craig Carey-Clinch
Pictures, Dave French who is Irish