What better way to spend my days than cycling through pretty villages on quiet roads and alongside rivers until I was tired, when I could just stop wherever I liked?
On the 20th July 2009 I wheeled my fully-loaded bike off the ferry in St. Malo, France, not knowing where I was going to sleep that night, except that it would be in a tent; and not knowing which way to go, except if I headed south I couldn't go far wrong. I didn't even have a map. Well, that's not true exactly - I had three maps covering the whole of Africa (my final destination 25 000kms and 24 countries away). But they weren't going to help me right then. But fortune favours the brave, so I boldly struck up conversation with the other stranger wheeling his bike off the ferry. The stranger showed me to a campsite and with, 'A gift to get you off to a good start on your ride,' he handed me a large road atlas of France.
I cycled with a smile all the way to the Pyrennees. Smiling, not only because I had a map, even though I still managed to get lost, but because I couldn't think of anything else I would rather be doing right then. What better way to spend my days than cycling through pretty villages on quiet roads and alongside rivers until I was tired, when I could just stop wherever I liked? I had time to read and I had time to visit cathedrals and castles. Time to enjoy a drink of red wine in the evening or coffee with croissants for breakfast. Definitely better that working in an office. Smiling, because for the time-being, life was one big holiday. I smiled on through Spain’s searing heat and took a ferry to Morocco. And south of Morocco is desert.
When I planned the ride during a sunny summer afternoon whilst convalescing a knee injury, I thought crossing the Sahara would be the toughest part. The reality was that an overland journey to Cape Town was beyond my comprehension and although I had a route mapped all the way, I hadn't honestly thought about the practicalities beyond the first few months to the Sahara. And crossing a desert seemed like a major challenge when considered from the sofa at home.
So finding a smooth tarmac road running along the Atlantic coast all the way from Morocco, through the disputed Western Sahara and on to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, shouldn't have come as a surprise. With gas stations offering omelettes and coffee, tajine and coke, cold water and washrooms every 100km or so, it turned out to be probably the easiest 1,000km of the journey. Aided by a strong tailwind. I had thought I might be lonely, but again I was wrong. I had the good fortune of bumping into another cyclist. Lars was also going south.
Cycling day-in, day-out can be a challenge. Mentally. The legs just keep pedalling but the mind needs stimulation. Cycling can be boring. The desert may be one seemingly endless, barren tract of stony hammada and windswept sands; the mind however is one infinite tract of endless images and ideas, which can grow from an innocuous seed into beautiful flowers. Lars and I combined our ideas and, with a dash of adventurous spirit, hatched a new plan… to paddle a boat down the Niger River.
And that’s how it came to be that I spent my 29th birthday paddling down the upper reaches of the Niger river in Guinea, in a pirogue. A six-metre pirogue that we had paid a local fisherman to build for us, which would fit two people, two bikes and two weeks’ worth of food. With no-one except an occasional fisherman, for once we felt truly alone with nature. Where there are no people, nature thrives. From beautiful birds with shimmering blue feathers that glide effortlessly across the surface of the water, to eagles that soar effortlessly in the thermals high above. Crickets and frogs provide a symphony of sounds to fall asleep after the sun goes down, and large fish jump out of the water and make you think it’s a crocodile.
Chimpanzees stare silently from between the branches of the wall of green bush lining the riverbank and hippos bathe in the river and look remarkably like rocks until their ears twitch and they see the boat. With a giant noise somewhere between a horse snorting and a whale spouting water they submerge leaving you unsure where they will surface next.
Spiders hop along the water’s surface when you shoo them out of the boat with the end of your paddle and snakes slither and glide through the river with their heads looking out like little periscopes. After a continuous onslaught of mosquitoes, sandflies and tsetse flies we decided that not everything in nature should be nurtured.
The Niger river took us to Mali where myself and Lars went our separate ways. My way was now to Timbuktu. Not by bike, but by public transport. Bush taxi, bus and 4x4. Once a fabled city of wealth and the centre of Islamic learning, Timbuktu is now just a dusty town on the edge of the encroaching desert. But this is one hourglass that cannot be turned over and soon Timbuktu shall be lost to the sands of time.
Back on my bike I pedalled through the rest of West Africa. Through friendly Ghana, tiny Togo and Benin famed for voodoo, slaves and female Dahomey warriors. Through Nigeria that I feared would be corrupt and dangerous [but for a traveller who embraces the culture of Nigeria and it’s people will be rewarded with friendship and generosity that can be hard to accept at face value, especially when everything you had assumed about the country told you that nothing comes for free]. On to Cameroon with it’s muddy, rocky lung-busting tracks through thick overgrown forest up into the cool, crisp air of the beautiful highlands, with deep orange earth tracks winding along the green hillsides with endless views and mist-covered valleys. And through Gabon until the tarmac road ends abruptly, a signpost directs you right, right down a deep-rutted, deep-sand track to the ‘Republic of Congo’.
If you need help, and help can be offered, it will be. That is the Congo. Everyone helps each other.
If you would like to read more about Helen’s cycle to Cape Town, she wrote regularly throughout the journey on her Take On Africa website: www.takeonafrica.com. To read more about what Helen’s doing now and the upcoming Great Divide ride through America go to Helen’s Take On website www.helenstakeon.com or follow Helen on Twitter @helenloyd
On the bad roads through The Congo you have to push and drag and sweat and strain. You have to persevere when your body is screaming to stop and wait for a truck to get a lift. You have to remind yourself that no truck is coming and you passed the only other truck two days ago (broken down). And just when you think your tired arms can push no more, you see the steepest hill yet. But you are now at the bottom of the valley, where a river flows. And where road and river meet, there is life. And a friendly face which will take the back of your bike and help you push They are going the same way and have hands to help. Nothing is requested or accepted in return. If you need help, and help can be offered, it will be. That is the Congo. Everyone helps each other.
Three weeks later, after cycling across East Africa - a country almost devoid of infrastructure, I looked out over the crystal clear Lac Fwa, with the surface gently rippling where water from the underground source slowly rose to the surface and spread outward. Unfortunately though, at a place where tourists are unknown but diamonds definitely are, your presence will be viewed as highly suspicious. And so, with some disappointment, I left and instead went to Lusambo on the banks of the Sankuru river. Once the provincial administrative centre in Belgian days, the colonial buildings are now crumbling and the gardens grow maize. Where Timbuktu is being lost to the desert, Lusambo is being lost to the forest.
Reluctantly, after a few days respite and recovery I left and pedalled south. Where central Africa had tough roads and officials to contend with, southern Africa had wild animals. Elephants that, despite their size, are hard to see from the road until you are so close that you startle them and they turn to face you with trunk in the air and ears flapping aggressively. Lions that you know could be near, and when you are told of one on the road ahead, know they are. Stop pedalling. Get a lift. Hyenas that you think you can hear outside your tent in the moonlit night, and make you crouch with the only weapons you have which are a penknife and pliers from your toolkit. Better than a bike pump though. But when you emerge in the morning and see your lone tent surrounded by prints, you know you weren’t just being paranoid. Scorpions that like the warmth from your shoes that you left outside your tent and are really glad you remembered to shake them out before putting them.
But not everything is dangerous to the cyclist and as I gaze out across the plains watching the wildebees, zebras and giraffes, I smile and think back of the journey to this point, and to the future. This is Africa.
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