Into the Dark Continent
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Words and Photos: Lee Mears
My motorcycle is bouncing from rock to rock and I am no longer in control of it. I resign myself to simply holding on until either I get to the top of this hill I am climbing, or I fall off.
I fall off. As I lie on the ground swearing, I spy out of the corner of my eye the back wheel of a BMW F650 Dakar flying through the air and no more than two foot from my head. Wayne, a fellow rider and an Aussie, has passed me in style and all I can do is lie here and watch him skillfully manhandle his bike to the top. He stops and turns to look at me with an expression of pity – only just disguising his almost overwhelming desire to laugh.
This is day number one hundred and twelve in Africa and we find ourselves in the middle of a four month journey from London to Cape Town, riding into the remote and spectacular mountains of Angola. Seven riders and a support vehicle snaking our way across the planets most evocative and challenging continent with Kudu Expeditions. We’ve been going all day and have not seen another human being for a hundred and fifty miles. Hour after hour of hills, valleys and plains and not a soul to be seen. The trail we are following, in effect the main road between two of the country’s largest towns, is little more than a goat track. This faintest of scars on the landscape is the toughest riding we have encountered in the last 13,000 miles on the continent.
We began this epic, four month adventure back in April. Meeting up for the first time on a cold Saturday morning in England we took the time to go through routes, borders, kit and equipment and everything else to do with the mammoth ride to come. What that wet weekend in Cambridgeshire did do is seriously ignite our eagerness to get going. Poring over the enormous map of Africa hanging on the wall, tracing fingers over vast areas of yellow followed by equally vast areas of green – daydreaming about the exotic places we were due to pass through – “Mauritania, Congo, Angola, Namibia“. Practicing tyre changes and getting used to our GPSs – even the first aid presentations – everything we did that weekend seemed to shout out “this is no ordinary trip you are about the begin!”.
That most certainly proved to be the case. After a couple of days crossing Spain we find ourselves in Morocco and riding what must be amongst the most spectacular roads to be found anywhere on earth. Perfect tarmac snaking though mind-blowing scenery in the Atlas Mountains, a clear blue sky overhead and the warm sun on our faces. Hairpin after hairpin up and over the Tichka Pass at 2,200 meters, we ride through ancient, mud-brick villages before getting back to civilisation in the form of the hustle, bustle and chaos of Marrakesh. Morocco is the perfect introduction to adventure motorcycling. Beautiful and exotic it is also comparatively easy to explore with its rapidly developing infrastructure and abundance of fantastic roads – simply heaven for motorbikes.
A week later and we are in the middle of Mauritanian and in the process of crossing the Sahara desert. After nearly two days of exhilarating but tiring desert trails, we have our first injury. Rod, a steady, experienced and highly competent rider has taken an unlucky tumble. Falling awkwardly he is concussed and has hurt his shoulder. We are a long way from tarmac and a long way from hospital and it is with a great sense of relief that I am able to take a step back and let our expedition paramedic take control. With years spent patrolling on his Pan European with the Surrey Ambulance Service, Kev immediately puts on his professional paramedic’s hat and gets to work. Strapped up and having consumed a suitable amount of pain killers, Rod is now comfortable and raises a weary smile. With his bike in the support vehicle’s trailer and himself riding up-front we continue our epic ride across the vast sands of the Sahara towards the promise of tarmac, a clean hospital for Rod, and a cold beer for the rest of us. He is a tough character and spends another night in the desert before we are able to reach the medical centre in Mauritania’s capital and hand him over to the doctor.
It is at times like this that the seemingly endless pre-expedition planning pays off. The hours spent sat in my office until late at night thinking up endless “worst-case” scenarios, how to prevent them, or if all else fails what to do when the scenario unfortunately becomes reality. The next day Rod is X-rayed and the news, which we all suspected but desperately hoped we would not hear, is that he has a broken collarbone and his trip is over. We lose a popular member of our team and we are gutted for him.
For the lucky remainder the adventures continue through the humid metropolis of Dakar and onwards into West Africa’s scorching interior. Mali, a country I have a great personal affinity for, as always does not disappoint. The ancient cultures and never-ending hospitality of the locals more than compensate for round-the-clock, sweltering heat and the challenges that exploring one of the world’s poorest countries on a motorcycle invariably brings. Dogon Country, Timbuktu, Bamako – all mystical names that had been identified on our wall-map back in the UK with a sense of slight disbelief that we would soon be riding into these places. Yet here we are – actually doing it!
After the crazy temperatures of the West African Sahel the world thankfully cools as we travel south into the equatorial belt. The adventures and experiences do not cease as the days and weeks pass. The bustle and chaos of Africa’s towns and cities, the innocent tranquility of its rural villages and the boundless hospitality of its people. The corrupt border guards – amusing and exasperating in equal measures. The children – furiously waving and smiling at us as we ride by, or manically chanting as if the Dakar rally itself had come to town. Chased by rampaging baboons in Ghana, laid low with malaria in Togo we move on into Nigeria – the world’s most corrupt country – where the world’s friendliest and most welcoming people do their best to redress the balance. As our journey progresses so the craziness of each day becomes the norm, the routine of packing kit and jumping on bikes every morning becomes a way of life, and the colour, sounds and smells of Africa which fill each day feel like they will be there forever.
From dense, beautiful rain forests in Cameroon and Gabon, the humidity begins to subside as the vegetation thins. Gradually we begin to emerge from the tropics and into the southern hemisphere. This is the most challenging section on the entire 16,000 mile expedition. Central Africa has always been tough with difficult borders, broken roads, civil conflict and the constant ebb and flow of ever-changing and corrupt governments. It was as a scrawny 18 year old, many years ago, that I first entered this region. I had spent an entire month traveling across the Congo, from the Central African Republic in the north, to Uganda in the east. A month spent digging our vehicle out of mud holes time and time again in the sweaty, mosquito infested jungle. Caked in dirt, hungry and perpetually tired, it remains to this day the toughest month of my life and simultaneously the worst and the best experience of Africa that I have ever had.
It is now clear that things here have certainly improved over the years, however as we travel through this region – a place where only the boldest of motorcycle adventurers come – that same, almost medieval atmosphere prevails. The completely untended, rutted and broken forest tracks, thick with dust in the dry season and then made impassable with mud during the rains. The ramshackle huts housing flip-flop wearing, AK-47 toting border guards. The villages, where wide eyed children stare in utter disbelief – frozen either in fascination or in horror at these great machines ridden by helmeted aliens momentarily disturbing the tranquility of their daily existence. Finally we come to the two great central African cities, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, facing each other over the vast, almost biblical Congo River – regional centres of culture and conflict where the streets are lined with heaving bars and desperate beggars. We need to cross from one city to the other which means getting onto the trans-Congo river boat, an experience that will stay with us all forever. The blind and crippled inhabitants of these two remote and imposing cities can ride the ferry boat for free and are consequently used by merchants to transport all kinds of goods for trade on each side of the river.
The manic rush to get on-board when the boat docks is physically intense and fascinating. The guards, sadistically striking out with whips at any poor soul who does not move out of their way fast enough, are despised and feared by all. The sweating lads, loaded up with 120kg of flour each, dash on near-collapsing legs to the shore. Amongst all of this frantic activity are a bunch of motorcycles with their travel worn riders staring in disbelief at the goings on around them. It is Africa at its most raw and a display of the continent’s great strengths and weaknesses. The chaos and cruelty equally matched by the people’s resilience, unfailing humour and sense of kinship.
We make it onto the boat, crammed in amongst the bags of flour and in the depths of a great throng of people who have been fortunate enough to make it on too. The noise is immense, the heat oppressive and the experience so intense that we keep looking at each other with great smiles of disbelief – we want to take pictures but the fact that this is an international border crossing means to do so could have serious repercussions. The chaos is repeated as the boat docks on the far side of the river, and after the great scramble to disembark we are in Kinshasa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And so, a week or so later, our journey brings us to this remote Angolan hilltop, and by now I am relaxing around the campfire and reflecting on our epic journey so far. The common feeling is that we are at the peak of our 4 month adventure. Tomorrow we will descend out of these hills to rejoin the rest of the world as we meet up with the main road to Namibia. That is when the adventure slows down into something a lot more relaxed and a lot less demanding as we emerge into what may be termed “civilisation”. Immaculate Namibian and South African roads, supermarkets, ATM machines and all the same efficiencies and conveniences of a European country. We are all looking forward to some easier traveling, but at the same time we are all fully aware that these difficult regions are the ones to savour the most.
Soon however, it will be time to re-acquaint ourselves with the western world before we re-join the friends and family left behind. I for one have a beautiful young fiancée waiting for me back home and I take time to chat with her on the Satellite phone from this hill top at the ends of the earth. She has just come in from another tough, stressful day at work, it is raining and the traffic was awful – I begin to feel a bit guilty. The time to make amends for four months away in Africa is rapidly approaching! For now however, we can savour where we are, what we have so far experienced, and what we have to look forward to tomorrow. Wake up, pack up, jump on our bikes and start riding into another unpredictable, challenging, amazing day in Africa.