Before I begin let me emphasise that I am a regular person. There is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about me; hence, I never thought I’d be writing this article. I’m just a guy that loves his bike and this is where it took me...
Until I was there, I never would have imagined visiting a city so foreign and arcane sounding as Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, or any other place like it for that matter. But I have indeed been there. The notion of crossing through the Sahara desert, using only the power of my legs and the collective will of my companions, seems difficult to comprehend. But again, I have managed to do it. And if someone told me that a bicycle would take me on a journey from Seville in Spain to Accra in Ghana I simply wouldn’t have believed them. But it was a journey that I will never forget and one that changed the way I live my life.
On the Second of November in 2010 I, along with my three companions Cameron, Sean and my brother Patrick, embarked on a journey through West Africa with the desire to broaden our horizons, chase our desire for eadventure while attempting to contribute to a region that we were travelling through in some way.
So, in aide of our partners at Y-Generation Against Poverty (YGAP) and City of Refuge Ministries (CORM), we rode through nine countries, covered 8000 kms and managed to raise over $40,000 to contribute to the fight against child slavery in Ghana's Lake Volta region.
After month’s of planning and training, we flew our bikes from Melbourne to Spain and embarked from Seville on the 4th of November 2010, with our bikes packed to the nines and our minds full of anticipation. We didn’t know what to expect and, although none of us liked to show it, we were racked with nerves.We made our way down south before boarding a ferry from Tarifa, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, into Tangier, Morocco.
As we rolled off the gangplank, our tires hit African soil for the very first time. Hugging the Atlantic coast, our legs grew stronger, as we began to learn of the pleasures and perils of life on the road, from tough days on the bike with heavy legs to getting welcomed as though we were family into stranger’s houses for dinner. As we navigated through the mountains of Morocco we marveled in the wild landscape as well as the rich architectural and cultural history.
As built up civilization began to make way for nomadic towns, we eventually crossed into the disputed territory of Western Sahara and our trip started to change shape as we rode in the first dunes of the Sahara desert. Our need for self reliance increased as sources of food and water became more few and far between. It was a real test of our collective attrition.
After weeks of riding into tough, unseasonable headwinds our weary legs finally got us across the border into the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. We were lucky enough that a few years earlier a Chinese company had built brand new road running, north to south, through the top half of Mauritania so the last kilometers through the Sahara where a surprising pleasure.
We arrived in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, and took our first rest from the bikes in around a month, as we waited to be granted Senegalese visas from the local embassy. We had some time to take stock and reflect on our journey so far; the new experiences we had been exposed, the tests and trials we had passed through in the desert, the strength of camaraderie and of course all amazing people we had met.
After over a month on the road we felt like we had come so far, but unbeknownst to us our rest in Nouakchott was the beginning of some our most difficult episodes yet to come. Sean had managed to contract what we thought was a virus and I had had a run in with an insect that left a lasting bite on my right knee. We both got over the initial symptoms quickly and got on with it soon there after, thinking nothing of it.
So after a couple of days of recuperation, we were off riding again and made it to the Senegal river, which is the southern border of Mauritania, only a day before our visas expired. After a bit of a struggle to get through the notorious border crossing at a town called Rosso we were paddling across the river in pirogues (traditional fishing boats), away from Arabic Africa into the new world of Sub-Saharan Africa.
That sparse expanse of the desert, that we had gotten so used to, made way for flourishing vegetation and flowing water ways as we rode into beautiful St Louis, the largest city in northern Senegal. After spending the night in St Louis we awoke to find that my right knee was swollen and infected for reasons that at that time weren't exactly clear. In this condition, I was unable to ride a bike and amidst the confusion fears that I would have to pack my bags and head home began to set in.
After brief deliberation it was decided that group would split in two; with Pat and I taking a taxi down to Dakar, some 250 kms away, to seek further medical assistance and Cam and Sean riding on behind us in the hope of meeting us there in a couple of days.
Upon arrival in Dakar we were still unsure as to the reason behind this infection, and owing to our poor comprehension of French any answers we were after were getting lost in translation. Eventually the doctor we were consulting decided to bite the bullet rather than continue if miscommunication; she got me to lie down on the bed of our hotel room, put a surgical sheet over the lower half of my body, stuck a piece of wood in my mouth and pulled out a blade. I was engulfed by the fear of the unknown, but in no position to argue as she lent in with her blade....
Check back next week for Part 2 of 'The Places You'll Go: West Africa'.