Back in town!

Just before Christmas Lloyd from Red Coat called me to say that our bikes were safe and sound in a hangar close to Gatwick. Unfortunately we couldn’t pick them up until the new year as we were abroad visiting family over the christmas break. We did make our way to the Red Coat hangar on a bleak January Monday morning and were welcomed by Lloyd’s helpful staff who showed us to our bikes and relieved us of the modest sum of £1400. If you consider that our 2 bikes were kept in a hangar for 6 weeks, made safe to fly, loaded on a plane, flown 6 hours, unloaded, parked at Gatwick, picked up and driven to Red Coat offices, I dare say it’s a cheap price!

The first thing we did was to put the mirrors back on and rewire the batteries which had been neutralised for the transport. We then filled in our tanks with the two 5L jerrycans we had brought with us and tried to start the bikes. Louise’s started straight away, as if it hadn’t been sitting empty and neglected in Africa for 6 weeks. Mine, on the other hand, didn’t make a sound. I was expecting that the cheap Chinese battery I had bought in Tan Tan would not last long and it hadn’t. To be fair, it had performed flawlessly between Tan Tan and Banjul so I couldn’t complain. The 6 weeks wait did kill it though. Lloyd and his staff were very helpful in trying to jump start it and push starting but it was obvious that I needed a new battery. Luckily enough there was a motorcycle dealer a few hundred meters away so I jumped on the back of Louise’s bike and we purchased a brand new, quality, Yuasa battery. After all, my F650 deserved a treat. She obviously appreciated the gesture and fired up instantly. It was a great feeling to be back on the bikes, in our yellow and pink hi-viz. I was again surprised at how good these BMWs are. So easy to work on and the level of comfort they provide for a 650cc single is incredible.

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The ride home through London traffic was a piece of cake after having dealt with Dakar! It felt really bleak and grey though and I felt nostalgia for the craziness and the explosions of colours and smells we’d experience on our trip through northern Africa. This did reinforce my belief that motorcycle travel is singular in that it enables the rider to experience the outdoors while having fun and covering good distance. I was also reinforced in my conviction that motorcycle “adventure” is easy. The biggest hurdle is to take the decision to leave. The bike, if it’s in decent shape, will take you where you want to go. No need to worry about it too much; you’ll always find a way to reach your destination and will meet many kind and colourful people on the way. You will also learn a lot and build a wealth of personal experiences which you will never regret.

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Our man in Saint Louis

Zebrabar was exactly what the doctor ordered and there’s no doubt why it’s so popular with overlanders who have just crossed the Sahara. It is a campement right by the water with a choice of cabins. We booked ourselves into a lovely bungalow and parked the bikes in the soft sand right in front of it. We jumped in the water as soon as our bike kit was off and then joined the other guests on the long table for dinner. Everyone seems to be on the same wavelength here, and Ursula, Martin and their family make guests welcome in a very laid back, hands off way. We shared the table with a young couple from Luxemburg and a franco-canadian couple here to volunteer in a school. Present were also an Austrian couple who were about to begin a university exchange programme. They had a lot of very good advice about Saint Louis and Dakar. Fabian had wanted to overland it to Senegal but it didn’t happen. He did know all about temporary import of vehicles etc though… I had my first taste of a Gazelle beer which I can’t really tell whether its good or not (its been so long). It did the trick for me though! We spent the next 24h doing absolutely nothing except for swimming and reading. We had breakfast on the terrace overlooking the water and were greeted by local fishermen passing by in their colourful pirogues. We were actually very lucky because our first day in Zebrabar coincided with the visit of about 30 kids from a local orphanage. They were spending the day by the water and playing with the instruments and toys Martin has lying around. It may sound like a bad thing to happen when one is looking to relax but these kids were very well behaved and brought a lot of life to the site. We made friends with a few of them, doing tumbles in the water and showing them the bikes. We sat them on the bikes and let them rev the engine too. I know I would have loved that as a kid myself! Seeing their excitement was priceless. 20121114-192806.jpg

During our second day we focused on getting an extension on the 48h temporary import for our bikes. This was an interesting process to say the least… Apparently the local customs office won’t give you an extension (this is debatable though) and one has to deal with the infamous…let’s call him Mister M. Mister M is the son of an influential person in Senegal and he’s got connections… We were given his number and called him to arrange a meeting. We then waited on he terrace of the Hotel De La Poste when, an hour late, a car parked, doors opened and a smartly dressed businessman stepped out followed by an entourage of 3 minions. We shook hands, he asked what we needed and sent a minion away to make copies of our documents. When he came back the price negotiation started… Prices had come up compared to the usual rate. He explained that a third of it was for administration and the rest was for his effort. Louise began using her charm and bargaining skills and he got up and shook her hand at 38€ per bike for a 10 days extension. He then drove off with our paperwork and the promise to be back around 4pm. That left us a few hours to visit Saint Louis which is worth doing. It’s a long and narrow island which, like Manhattan is organised around a grid of streets. That’s where the comparison ends though… It did have some resemblance with another American city; New Orleans, with a certain French colonial feel and beautiful balconies on the first floor.

At 5:30pm, after a few reminders, Mister M. arrived in his car and didn’t get out; he handed us the paperwork, an “exceptional” authorisation to temporarily import a vehicle older than 5 years old, signed by some colonel…

All in all this was pretty straight forward and it’s evident that Mister M. does this all the time. So, for information to all the overlanders who debate this question on different fora, the answer is this. Don’t worry about the “no older than 5 years old” rule or having a carnet de passage for your vehicle. As long as you can grease Mister M.’s hand you’ll get in. FYI he told us the price for a car is 100€. Hope this helps. If you need to contact him, ask Ursula or Martin at Zebrabar; or for that matter, anyone in Saint Louis… Mister M. is a known and respected man…

The only down side to Saint Louis (and you’ll find this everywhere in Senegal) is the ‘touts’ trying to sell you everything from a horse cart ride to a kitchen sink. They are good at sticking to you like glue, asking your name and listening to what you’re after (this was actually helpful when looking for a Senegal flag for the motorbikes!). After a day of this and of street kids begging for money, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a local guy who spotted our bikes and wanted to come and have a look. He was very friendly and wanted to hear all about our route because although he’s a teacher, he ‘lives for his motorbike’. It’s always nice to meet keen bikers!

Upon our return “home”, we had the very pleasant surprise to meet John, a South African who was spending some time in Senegal waiting to meet with his son Anton and his girlfriend Tina who are driving from London to Cape Town. John was a chemical engineer who came up with a process to entirely recycle cardboard. He was now focussing on creating a totally sustainable farm which could support up to 40 people. Louise had a very interesting g conversation with him as they were totally on the same wavelength and she felt very inspired by him. He also told us about his son Anton who has a fascinating story. John and Anton had been on a biking holiday in Argentina a few years ago when Anton had a terrible accident in which he lost a leg. This didn’t slow him down though, as a matter of fact he embraced the change so much that he became an volleyball athlete. And an Olympian too! He’d just finished competing in the London games before setting off to cross Africa in a 4×4 with his girlfriend. Louise and I were very disappointed that we didn’t get to meet them but John very kindly offered to meet up next time we’d be in Cape Town, an offer Louise and I would love to take up.

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The Diama piste shortcut…

“150km south of Nouakchott, turn right after the water tower” said one man… it took us a while to find the shortcut but did so eventually. This was after a stop to refuel in a small market village on the way. The fuel pumps looked new but weren’t working. Thankfully the owner had some barrels at the back and we bought 10 litres of his finest “sans plomb”. It was comedy though when he asked me to hold the barrel high above the bike while he sucked the petrol out of a length of hosepipe; he wasn’t very competent at this as he did get a couple of mouthfuls. What wasn’t comedy is when he spilled petrol in Louise’s helmet which was hanging upside down from the handlebar… Schoolboy error. Louise had to stop a couple of km later as she felt her forehead burning and we proceeded to wash her helmet liner with shampoo by the side of the road. 24h later her hair still had a faint petroleum scent to it. Does this make her a ‘petrol-head’?

All this delayed us and we only made it to the shortcut around 11am when the sun started beating down on us. The track wasn’t as good as we’d been told. In fact there were two tracks. One was an old track made of dried mud and patches of soft sand, the other was a road under construction which was composed of packed gravel and white sand… We battled with the first track, then tried our luck with the road under construction but the further we went the softer the sand became. I was really impressed by Louise’s riding skills in soft sand, she was nimble and did good progress. I, on the other hand, was trying too hard and battling against the bike. I exhausted myself to a point at which I actually became quite worried about my health; I was out of breath and overheating, there was no way I would make it to the end if I continued like this; I was on the verge of a heat-stroke. We took a 20 minutes break under a tree, I stripped down to my undies and cooled down. The 6 litres of water we were carrying were now down to about 1.5L. Louise then did a recce and found that the mud track which was running parallel was now better so we crossed over to that one. It was indeed easier to ride on but still challenging.

All this was forgotten in the blink of an eye when, after a sharp turn 20km from the border we found ourselves in the delta of the Senegal river and its luxuriant tropical swamp. We cheered when we saw ponds with waterlilies and reeds and I nearly crashed when, through my helmet intercom came the screeching noise of Louise shouting “WARTHOGS!!”. She had spotted 3 of them running into the mangrove. We saw hundreds of cranes, pelicans, cormorants and an eagle. Then we reached the border…

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NKT

(pictures to follow soon

Nouakchott is interesting to say the least, an experience in itself. It is the capital city of one of the five poorest countries in the world, where a scandalous proportion of the population lives in slavery. There seems to have been absolutely no urban planning and the few tarred roads we rode on had potholes the size of a small car. I’ve been in many poor countries before and there is always an interesting history to cities; faded glory or at least evidence of a semblance of organisation in their past, but not here. I can’t begin to describe how poor, bleak, hot and dusty Nouakchott is. Thankfully we stayed in Auberge Sahara which is a little haven. They fed us a nice dinner of vegetables which we had been craving for a few days (there’s only so far one can go on white bread and omelettes). They also had air conditioning and loo paper; the height of luxury.
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During dinner we met a group of middle aged French men who were also on their way to Senegal. From the conversations I overheard I could make out that they were married to Senegalese women… nothing wrong with that, but quite interesting when one was the size of his van and the other one had glass lenses like the bottom of coca cola bottles…and a gold chain around his neck. Anyway, I digress, they were very friendly even-though they were carrying a bottle of pastis with them which they didn’t offer to share. We exchanged stories and they spoke about a new shortcut to the track that leads to the border crossing of Diama. There are two border crossing to Senegal; Rosso, which is notorious for its corrupt officials, aggressive touts and where daylight robbery is rampant, and Diama, where little traffic passes as it is at the end of a 90km dirt track. We had made up our mind long ago to cross from Diama but knew that the track would take us a while to complete as we are not experienced off-roaders. So the promise of an easy shortcut to the track which would nearly halve the 90km was alluring. We took note and decided to find it in the morning<;

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Mauritania propper

(pictures to follow soon)

After a bad night’s sleep camping on a sand dune behind the petrol station we made an early start towards Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. It was only 250km away and so it was easy riding. We saw different faces of the Sahara desert with rolling orange dunes and flat stretches of white rocks with a sprinkling of vegetation. This was a comparatively deserted desert though, from the border to the capital we only crossed a couple of villages; settlements along the road really. Their wooden shacks were leaning in the same direction as the wind and people were sitting idle in front of them. We did note though that they all had decent cars parked next to them. It was interesting that the Mauritanian desert also felt poorer than that of Western Sahara; as soon as we had crossed the border the roadside was littered with burned out/crashed cars and decomposing bodies of camels and donkeys. I don’t know the explanation for either but suspect that the former may be the result of a late night/high speed encounter with the latter…

Arriving in Nouakchott was very interesting; we weren’t prepared for the heat. I suspect it was in the high 30s Celsius, which is mild there, but nearly unbearable for us riding in all our motorcycle gear. We stopped at a petrol station and were surprised that the pump attendant wanted to buy our euros. Talk of confidence in the local currency! This was the second station we visited though, the first one didn’t have unleaded petrol and the attendant barely got up from the oil stained mattress on which he was napping, right by the pumps. He had been bothered a few moments before our arrival by a man on a camel… Was he picking up diesel for his car? We don’t know but it was funny to see a camel waiting at a petrol station.

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Crossing into Mauritania

Guest post by Louise Wilson.

From various sources of information we were advised to reach the border when it opened at 8.30.
We arrived at the Moroccan border at 9am to find a queue of cars standing still as the border didn’t open until 9.30am. We went off to have a nosey to find a hotel (basic and nasty) a cafe and a shop. I went round to the toilets to find a guy tell me in English that the loo was free. Turned out he lives in Dulwich and Grew up in Peckham. He was hoping to cross the border but hadn’t realised he needed to get a visa in Rabat…

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We also spotted a petrol station right at the border so took advantage and both filled up. With our full tanks and the extra 10 litres we were carrying we would definitely make it through the day.

The queue began to move around 10am but David’s bike wouldn’t start. A slight panic ensued and lots of playing around; a Senegalese guy from in front came to help. I ran off looking for a screw driver but the problem was discovered. There was a loose connection on the battery and it was soon resolved and the bike was moving again.

After buying cookies, orange juice and dates from the shop we were told by a local guy that we should queue jump down the right hand side. I went ahead and sure enough, the gendarme let us through. We had one check to be given a piece of paper to complete (and David was asked about his camera and they deleted the film of me showing the border control!). Once through we had to do a police, gendarmerie and customs controls – each organised chaos, with friendly locals and lots of waiting around. I quickly removed the memory card from the video camera so I could show the internal memory images if asked but it was fine.

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After 4 checks, we bumped into Jule from Quebec, a cyclist we had been told to look out for, and David, a welsh guy who had been riding with Tommy (who’s blog we’ve followed).

The second you enter the no-mans land (5km stretch between the two countries, mostly mined) you’re pestered to change money and have a local escort you through to the border. We decided to change money on the ‘black market’ from a very trendy local (the kind you see in London) but there were disagreements and lots of counting for correct change.

We didn’t cross until 11.30am

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Off we went with welsh David’s advice to stay left to avoid the sand, stay in 1st gear and take it slow. We met up with Jule who was waiting for us in a burnt out car, did some filming and took photos. The desserted cars, broken TVs and tyres were crazy!

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The 5km was fine. There were a few patches of sand but David was great at guiding me through. Some areas you need to paddle through and accelerate out of any big bits.

It was actually quite fun and we were soon at the Mauritanian border where it suddenly got really hot and barren.

The guys selling money were there again high fiving the officials and there were lots of people walking around selling cigarettes. The police in Mauritania have big, nasty dogs but the officials were friendly and relatively helpful. Again, there were a few checks to go through and I tended to sit in the shade and watch the bikes while David sorted the paper work. The last official guy checked my passport and said something in French which I realised was probably asking for a bribe but i asked if he spoke English and he hurried me on. I parked up ahead which was lucky as he asked David for money but he said I had it all…

Even over the Mauritanian border we had to go and sign a tourist declaration form and then get insurance.

Just waiting to buy insurance was interesting. A little hut on the side had a shop at one end where we could buy cold juice (2 for 400crrenrly) and an insurance ‘office’ with lots of people fighting for attention. All of this time I’ve been the only women…some people have been friendly, some have stared and walked on and one asked if I would be going to his tonight! A few asked if I was married and why I didn’t have a child.

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It is now 2.20pm and it’s clear we won’t make Nouakchott tonight. Bob ‘the lone wolf’ suggested we camp behind the Total petrol station if we don’t make it and that probably makes sense. It’s boiling hot and we had an early start.

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Western Sahara

After 650km and 8 police and gendarmerie road checks we finally made it to Dakhla. The checks are a constant reminder that we are in disputed territory. But we have a good routine going on. Louise rides in the front and when she takes her helmet off, gives them an enthusiastic “bonjour!” They then look at me and ask for our passports; I say she’s the boss and she carries them both. Then I show them the sticker with our route outline on my windscreen and say that we’re going to Banjul “inch’allah”. This makes us look friendly and has eased the procedure. That being said we have found people in Western Sahara very nice!

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As we were crossing the city of Laayoune (which is very clean and modern) we heard fun fire and thought “uh oh”… Only to realise they came from men in robes on beautifully decorated horses. It then became quickly obvious that this was a celebration. We were immediately swarmed by a crowd of young people with Moroccan flags and pictures of the king. They were celebrating the Green March (a mass demonstration in November 1975, coordinated by the Moroccan government, to force Spain to hand over the disputed, autonomous semi-metropolitan Spanish Province of Sahara to Morocco). They all wanted to have they’re pictures taken with us and we were happy to abide. This level of enthusiasm was contrasted later by a petrol station attendant who, when he saw our stickers which mention “western Sahara” said to me discreetly in English “yes, this is Western Sahara, not Morocco!”.

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We entered the sandy peninsula of Dakhla to be greeted by an amazing orange sun setting on the white sand dunes. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect!

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