We arrived back in Mali from our jakarta trip at the end of February. I haven’t posted much – or at all – since then, and I don’t have time to write something significant so this post will be mostly visual.
Andre turned 8-months-old yesterday. He is standing up for a few seconds at a time now, and every day you can see the synapses multiply. For me and Bintou, watching him grow into a happy child has been pure joy. But we’ve now entered into a new phase called EVERYTHINGISFAIRGAME. For example, Andre is currently enamored with a neon green dustpan, so enamored that he wants to eat it. As I understand it, this phase lasts for several years? I anticipate many brushes with cardiac arrest once he starts walking, no less running, but at the same time, I can’t wait for this new adventure.
Family aside, 2017 has had its highs and lows. We lost a friend in a car accident. I will write more about it at a later time. Mali continues to unravel, with insecurity and poor governance leading the way. A hotel and restaurant, Le Campement, was attacked on the 18th. It was Father’s Day, and Bintou and I were actually considering going there on that particular day. We decided we’d rather avoid the crowds. Six people were killed and many others injured. The bars and pool areas were burnt to the ground. Meanwhile, our good friend Sophie is shutting the doors on her hotel in Djenne, which she started in 2006. It was difficult to read her final post about her time there. We have expanded the bar area at our own restaurant, but we are now once again turning to security, looking into armed guards and other measures to add to what is already a quite secure space overall.
The first half of the year has had its moments, though. After our jakarta tour, we’ve had plenty of trips on the river and even a hop over the border to Burkina Faso. While some good friends have left Bamako, others have arrived and there always seems to be someone passing through. My mom finally made it to Mali, and she had an excellent visit. We took a trip up to Segou and went around to our favorite spots in Bamako. While she would have enjoyed a trip to the arctic circle in winter as long as Andre was present, I was glad she got to see where I have been living for the better part of a decade.
I continue to work on my Postcards from Timbuktu project with Ali, and Matt and I are getting ready to finalize our scooter trips (side note: if you are interested in joining a trip, go to ScootWestAfrica.com and sign up to the email list at the bottom of the homepage. We will soon be making an announcement about dates and different trips). Hopefully, I will have a chance to post a bit more often on this blog as well.
Here are some photos from March-June. DISCLAIMER: most of them are photos of Andre.
Andre found chocolate and this is what happened.
You been smoking something, Dre??????
Andre the nomad
At Campement a couple of months before it was attacked.
I don’t know if this photo is the before …
… or the after
Andre’s first waterfall. In Banfora, Burkina Faso.
Andre’s first dip in a waterfall. He was not so impressed.
Bob testing out his allegedly waterproof phone. This was an excellent day.
Bintou and a very phallic rock formation at the Sindou Peaks near Banfora.
Bintou made her top and Andre’s. She is getting quite clever with her creations these days.
With friends on the roof of our boat
Inaugurating the new bar
A couple weeks later…
Hyacinthe, known to many as Eddie Murphy, is now working with us. This was an enormous coup as far as I’m concerned. Instant client favorite.
This is the fifth installment in a series of posts about our scooter trip around West Africa. If you need to catch up: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
We were on our way to Doucki, a village in the Fouta Djallon, a region of the Guinean highlands populated largely by Fulani. We had long heard tales about the natural beauty of the Fouta, and while we were running short on time (or I was at least), we were excited to explore it.
Simon from the Little Baobab had referred us to Hassan Bah (pictured lounging on a rock above), a guide based in Doucki. Somewhere after Labé we phoned Hassan, and he indicated where we would need to turn off the paved road in order to make it to his village.
The unpaved road deteriorated almost immediately after we turned onto it. What started as loose gravel and sand turned into an up-and-down staircase of jagged rocks. I crept along in first gear trying to avoid a puncture and further damage to my already displaced foot brake.
Every now and then we passed through a village and asked if we were on the right road. We also asked how much further it was to Doucki. The answer was always the same: “Tchieeeeee!!! Doucki?? C’est loin !!!!” (It’s far). It was almost as if Doucki was moving away from us as we drove towards it.
So we were driving these jakartas on a staircase of rocks and the distance to our destination was ostensibly increasing. Otherwise, it was a very enjoyable ride. Every time we stopped in a village, we received warm greetings and had funny conversations with residents who were confused and intrigued by the strange contraptions we were riding.
It was getting dark when we arrived in Doucki. Hassan welcomed us and showed us to our bungalows, which were built with thatch roofs that nearly touched the ground. This feature of Fulani architecture helps maintain a cool interior, but it makes it treacherous to get in or out if you are over four feet tall.
We had a delicious supper of sauce arachide (peanut sauce) with fish and rice, and oranges for dessert. We then chatted with Hassan and made a plan for the following day. Hassan was a character. He often spoke in acronyms. As in, “DIR” (dinner is ready) or tomorrow we are going to go on a “KAH” (a Kick Ass Hike). He had spent time with Peace Corps volunteers many years ago, and they helped him come up with his highly marketable hikes, such as “Chutes and Ladders” and “Indiana Jones.” They also seemed to have taught him (or perhaps it was some of the many tourists that visit him) a good amount of vernacular English that you normally wouldn’t hear from an older Fulani man living in the highlands of Guinea.
Hassan was a lovely man, but some of his tricks as a guide, like obsessively pointing out rocks that looked like animals, wore on us. On the other hand, it was easy to see that he was a pro and that he would be quite charming to a group of tourists.
Our early morning “Indiana Jones” hike began on a plateau. We walked through clusters of bungalows, past avocado trees and coffee plants. We arrived at a clearing with impressive views of the valley below. Despite gusting winds and uneven terrain, I decided to try and fly Oumou the drone. This was misguided. I had to land her on the small rectangular rock where Matt, Hassan and I were standing. Once I put her down, a gust of wind started pushing her forward. She tilted 45 degrees and snapped off two propellers into the rock. I then sliced my hand trying to grab the drone (even more misguided).
We descended into the valley where we walked through the dark and cool channels that ran between towering slabs of rock bursting with ferns and vines. The Fouta is truly a spectacular place.
Sorry for the poor pictures. I will blame low light and my camera phone.
The hike was deservedly called the “Indiana Jones” hike. There were caves, climbing vines and several narrow passages that would give you a panic attack if you were claustrophobic.
We got back to Hassan’s place in the early afternoon. We planned on eating lunch before heading back to Labé. There was one complication. During the night, my rear tire had gone flat. It surely took a puncture on the wild ride leading into Doucki. Thankfully, Matt had all the needed parts and changed the inner-tube without issue.
We once again set out on the road from hell, arriving in Labé several hours later. We pulled into the tranquil Hotel Tata, where we were quickly soothed by cold beers. Tata herself showed us to our room, which was clean and comfortable.
Back at the bar, we met up with Conrad, a German who we had somehow crossed paths with on the road to Doucki. His wife was from the Fouta, and he had lots of interesting things to say about Guinea and international development. For dinner, Tata made us some of the best pizza we have had in West Africa. It turns out that she spends the rainy season (low season for tourists) in Italy each year with her husband.
After dinner, we hopped onto moto taxis and went for a cruise around town. The moto taxi drivers wore fluorescent orange vests, and they rode bikes that were considerably more robust than our measly jakartas. Their bikes also had a more effective suspension system in which the front of the bike is more or less independent from the rear, which is perfect for the roads of the Guinean highlands. As a passenger it was like riding on a millipede that goes 70 kilometers per hour.
We raced around town in search of cold beers. It was not an easy mission. Labé is not well electrified and the refrigeration of beers is understandably not a top priority (Labé and the Fouta are largely Muslim). We went into one bar where we scored lukewarm cans of Faxe beer. Faxe is some kind of Danish beer that has a viking man as a logo. It was revolting.
I do not recommend this beer
Eventually we ended up at Albatross, one of the main (one of 3) nightclubs in town, where we found mildly chilled cans of Guiluxe. The club was dead and wasn’t likely to get going for several hours. Matt “dipped the lights” (he went back to the hotel to go to sleep) as he would say, while I lingered and chatted with the manager and DJ for a bit. Afterwards, I hopped on a moto taxi to go back to Hotel Tata.
After about 15 minutes of riding, I looked around and realized we were on the road that was leading towards Pita and that godforsaken road that goes to Doucki. I told the driver to stop so I could pull up Google Maps. There isn’t much electricity in Labé, but there is 3g. In many places in West Africa, mobile technology and communications have leapfrogged basic infrastructure. Sure enough, we were about five kilometers outside of Labé. After a frank discussion with the driver, Google Maps lead us back to to the hotel.
The next day, we began what would be a three day marathon to get back to Bamako. We did not know what to expect from the roads. We heard varying tales from “pas de problème” to the dreaded “bombé” (see this post to understand bombé). In any case, we prepared for the worst.
The worst never came, and while the road was sporadically unpaved (it looked like it had been stripped in anticipation of new road work), it was an absolutely gorgeous drive out of the highlands. We blazed ahead towards Dabola, stopping for lunch at a large traffic circle, the crossroads to Mamou. I ate a questionable lunch of sandy riz-sauce. The sauce was tasty, but there was a bit too much gristle for my liking. The two women cooking and selling the food were a joy, though.
In Dabola, Matt somehow found a hotel that had hot water and air-conditioning. They also had a bar and a restaurant, where we enjoyed a few guiluxes and massive plates of poulet braisé with chips and the house made chili sauce while somehow watching 6 nations rugby on the hotel TV.
The Guinean Franc is not a strong currency (you can look up the history, France played quite a sinister role in that affair), and you can only withdraw about 30 euros at a time.
After Dabola, we blasted towards KanKan, the third largest city in Guinea, and a center for Mandé culture in the region. The road had deviations every two kilometers or so, but it was not bombé. Eventually we were on a flat, paved road. We were out of the highlands and inching back towards the Sahel.
Early morning pit stop on the road to KanKan. Espresso and biscuits served by a friendly guy from Sierra Leone.
In Cisséla, we were flagged down at a police checkpoint and “fined” for having expired carte grises. They weren’t expired, so we effectively had two choices: (1) go with the police to a station somewhere, argue our case, hope to win, and get back on the road many hours later or (2) negotiate. We chose to negotiate. As we negotiated, the police stopped every passing vehicle and motorbike. These guys were on a mission. By the end of it, we were all good friends, and we had a piece of paper that we could flash at every police checkpoint until the border. In nearly 4,000 kilometers of overland travel in West Africa, this was our first interaction with crooked police.
In KanKan, we stopped for refreshment and a delicious lunch of poulet braisé.
Our spirits were high when we left KanKan. We had a pouch of cold guiluxes, and we planned on having a relaxing evening at a bush camp of our choosing. Of course, my rear tire, which was previously punctured in the Fouta, went flat as we were rolling out of town. There was a service station nearby, and I walked it over there in hopes of changing the inner-tube. We quickly received offers of help, but unfortunately the dude that ended up patching the inner-tube did not do a good job. The tire blew less than a kilometer after we got back on the road.
I walked the bike to another service station, but this one was either long abandoned, or it had never been finished. The sun was setting now, and a bush camp was increasingly out of reach. A man named Cheick Kone received us at the abandoned service station. He was the guardian tasked with watching over the property. While this would be unsurprising to anyone that has traveled in West Africa, I have to say that Cheick was exceptionally generous, helping us get a new inner-tube from a nearby village and inviting us to pitch our mosquito nets next to his.
Matt once again labored over my rear tire, this time in near darkness. Afterwards, he tried to take a bucket shower, but he was repeatedly harassed by a flock of chickens. In the meantime, I managed to run over Matt’s phone while moving my bike. Somehow it still functioned, but I felt quite poorly due to the amount of misfortune I was bringing to the table.
At last, we cracked open a few beers and enjoyed the evening breeze. I then slept like a log, so much so that I did not hear my tire explode. When I woke up, the tire was once again flat, and Matt mentioned hearing it pop sometime in the night. Cheick immediately volunteered to help. He raced to his village to get a new inner-tube, and we were able to get on the road only an hour and a half or so after sunrise. We gave Cheick a bit of a cadeau as we said goodbye, and then we sped off for Siguiri.
Time to get cleaned up before we arrive back home.
That’s our river! This was our first time seeing the Niger this far from Bamako.
When people say “catering” with a French accent it sounds an awful lot like “Catherine,” so this sign is understandable.
Cactus fence to keep out the goats. Spotted throughout Mali near the Guinean border.
We grabbed lunch in Siguiri, but didn’t linger for long. We were already caught in Bamako’s orbit, and we were both excited to get back home. We cruised through the border and made a beeline to Siby, where we made a brief pit stop at Hotel Kamadjan. We arrived back in Bamako during rush hour. Of course, the 20 minute ride from Sebenikoro to Badalabougou was probably the most dangerous part of our trip. But we were soon in the courtyard of the sleeping camel, amongst friends, and I was soon at home with Bintou and Andre.
We’ve since been back for a couple of months. While there is nothing better than being with Bintou and Andre, cruising around West Africa on a jakarta is a close second, and I look forward to many future expeditions. We are in the planning stages to launch different versions (some weeklong trips, two-weeks, and longer) of this trip for travelers at the end of this year into early 2018. If it works out, Bintou and Andre will travel to Casamance and we will base ourselves there for a couple of months as Matt and I run the tours.
If you are interested in these trips, you can join the email list at ScootWestAfrica.com. You can also check out this video that Matt made with footage from the trip:
We plan on putting up a few more videos in the coming months as we release more information and the trip dates. Stay tuned 🙂
This is the fourth installment in a series of posts about our scooter trip around West Africa. If you need to catch up: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Riding north and east from Bissau, the road deteriorated in parts, but we easily skirted around the broken tarmac on the jakartas. In the afternoon, we stopped in Mansôa in search of refreshment and a bite to eat. We didn’t find much on our first pass through town, so we flagged down a group of guys walking on the roadside. They didn’t understand French or our 3-word-Portuguese, but a young man sitting on a terrace overheard us and intervened. He happened to be a polyglot who spoke English, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese. He lived in Switzerland, but he was back in Bissau for several months in order to visit his mother.
He took us to the town’s only restaurant, a low key chop shop that looked like it would see some action at night. We were not in the mood for a riz-sauce lunch, so we asked the sweet maman running the show if we could make our sardine sandwiches and buy beer from her. She obliged and even chopped up some onions and tomatoes for us. So we sat drinking cold Cristals, eating what were now gourmet sandwiches and chatting with our new friend about life in Europe and rural Bissau.
After lunch, we pushed on towards Bafatá. We stopped at a service station before we arrived there and found it to be well stocked with beer, chorizo, wine, and not much else. This is not unusual in Guinea-Bissau, and it’s one reason for our current love affair with the country.
Later in Bafatá, we stopped at a roadside maquis, where we drank near frozen Cristals and chatted up the barman and two of his lady friends. Kids skipped alongside the road in white jerseys plastered with the Emirates logo. They were on their way to a dusty football pitch.
We were an hour’s drive from Gabu, where we planned on sleeping for the night. The road dipped and climbed, trees bowing overhead. We were getting closer to the Guinean highlands with every kilometer.
In Gabu, we stopped at the first hotel we saw, a converted villa with a secure courtyard. The rooms were clean and relatively cheap, and the hotel had a generator. We parked the bikes and unloaded our bags before grabbing a taxi into town. After wandering down one of the side streets that cut through the market, we ended up on the terrace of a bar that had a nice view of a quiet intersection.
The barman told us we could have steak with chips or salad. We were a bit hungry at this point, so we asked him how long it would take. Seven minutes was his response. Seven? Yes, seven minutes. It may have been longer than that, but we were still impressed. It was a one-man operation, and the bar looked deserted when we arrived.
After dinner, we wandered back towards the market area. When we got to the main road, Matt spotted a friend and frequent Sleeping Camel guest, a German with a kola plantation on the Bijagós islands. This was the second such chance encounter on the trip, first in Bissau with Andy and now in a small market town in the northeast corner of the country with Falk. Falk was equally surprised when he saw us, and we agreed a drink was in order. We found a dimly lit maquis and sat out on the patio, enjoying the Bissau island tunes drifting out from the bar.
After a few rounds of Cristal, we said farewell to Falk and went back to the hotel. We had Guinea-Conakry on the agenda the following day, along with a rough stretch of road that would rival the Niokolo Koba park in Senegal.
We left Gabu at first light. We were feeling good and the border was not far, so we decided to get breakfast after crossing into Guinea. As we pulled up to the checkpoint on the north end of town, a policeman reviewed our documents and then pointed to Matt’s front tire. It was nearly flat. We creeped back into town and immediately found a “collage” tire shop. While Matt’s inner-tube was getting patched up, I went off in search of breakfast.
I pulled up to a boutique and began talking with a light-skinned shopkeeper. I wrongly assumed he was Mauritanian when he was actually Tamashek from Mali. First surprise. Him speaking Bambara was the second. We had a funny conversation, and then he pointed me towards a Guinean standing behind a table with a familiar spread: eggs, mayonnaise, nescafe and condensed milk. But the Guinean also had Sonia chili sauce, tomato and onion. The silver lining of the tire puncture was the discovery of the best omelet sandwich on the trip.
Tire patched and bellies full, we once again drove off towards the border. When we arrived, a group of pleasant policemen welcomed us on the Guinea-Conakry side. They were mystified and amused by our jakartas, and they were very unhappy with America’s new president. Matt’s visa and my Malian ID both passed with flying colors, but the customs chief refused to give us a laissez-passer for the jakartas. He said we didn’t need one. We protested, but he stood his ground. Of course, this would be a problem further down the road, but I will save that story for the next post.
This photo was taken just next to the border. We were repeatedly told that the road was “bombé.” I didn’t know what this meant at first. I thought it could have meant “bombed out.” If that was the case, it was the most dramatic and worrying description of a road that we had come across on the trip. When I looked up “bombé” on Google translate, it said “bulging.” That was not encouraging, either.
For 15 kilometers or so, the road was filled with sharp dips and narrow paths carved out from last year’s rains. Then the road evened out, and we had gorgeous views of the plateau snaking its way towards the highlands.
In the late afternoon, we planned on stocking up on water before scouting for a place to bush camp. We pulled into a village, and Matt, while searching for water (I swear!), found the only bar for probably 200 kilometers in any direction. Well, “bar” might be a slight exaggeration.
The bar was the front room of the barman’s family’s house. Crates of warm Guiluxe beer sat in the corner, and a few bottles of cheap gin were already on the table. We were warmly received by the barman, his wife and a few customers that had settled in, but could we stomach warm Guiluxe after being spoiled by the frosty beers of Bissau? Apparently we could.
We sat with three day laborers who were working on the new Chinese road and a veteran from Guinea-Bissau’s war for independence. The veteran had violent tremors and told us that booze was the only thing that could get him to stop shaking. He took an empty calabash, filled it with a mix of warm gin and beer, tipped it upwards and emptied it in one gulp.
We continued drinking warm Guiluxes and soon realized that a bush camp was not in the cards. We would have likely crashed the bikes a few hundred meters outside of town just trying to find a place. The barman opened up his house to us, but it was suggested that we pitch our mosquito nets over at the local customs office. The barman admitted that we probably wouldn’t get much sleep if we were camped out at his place.
The customs agents were incredibly welcoming, promising us security and offering us a fenced off area where we could park our bikes and sleep for the night. We grabbed a few more Guiluxes at the bar and started making dinner.
The sachet of dry pasta said to add butter and milk to boiling water in order to make a cream sauce. The above photo is what I found at the boutique. Close enough. I commissioned one of the girls at the house next door to buy us some onions, and we were on our way. After dinner, I slept like a baby once the power cut off (the speakers on the neighbor’s TV could have used a tune-up).
We didn’t know it at the time, but the following day would be the most difficult day of riding on the trip. We were repeatedly warned that we would have a rough stretch followed by tarmac, followed by a bone shaking 35 kilometers that would take us into the highlands. That forecast was 100% accurate.
It didn’t take us long to arrive at the day’s first obstacle: a river. I can’t imagine what this crossing would be like during the rainy season. We planted our feet on the rocks and slowly rode through about two feet of water. Thankfully, I had already busted my foot brake on a punishing speed bump just after the Guinean border, so I could enjoy the river crossing without worrying about damage to the bike.
After the river crossing, we had about 15 kilometers of unpaved dips and turns. It was not easy, but it was a long way off from the sober warnings we had heard since the border.
Matt celebrating what we he thought was an early end to rough roads. On the other side of the camera, I was doing the same while munching on a hard-boiled egg smothered in chili powder. We were back on the tarmac, and things were looking up. Turns out, it was our celebration that was premature.
The tarmac continued for a short while and then disappeared for about 35 kilometers, exactly how it was explained to us. Things went south fairly quickly. We were riding on loose sand and rock, which is not very accommodating terrain for a 110 cc Chinese motorcycle. And whether “bombé” means “bombed out” or “bulging,” this road — this path into the highlands — was bombé.
Matt cruising into a patch of sand. Right after I took this picture, I managed to further dislodge my foot brake, nearly snapping it off while descending into one of the steeper dips in the road. Before long, we started climbing, up into the forest. At one point, a baboon flew across the road and down into the ravine. For 35 kilometers, we were caught between 1st and 2nd gear, dodging boulders and jagged rocks while trying to stay upright in the sand.
This is me once we got back onto the tarmac. Dusty, tired and relieved.
This is Mariam Sylla. Shortly after we made it back onto sealed roads, we arrived in Mariam’s village. Her shop looked inviting so we popped in to see if we could grab some lunch. Excellent judgement on our part. Mariam danced around her shop yelling “ici, tout est possible!!!” (here, everything is possible). She wasn’t lying. She had a thick beef stew cooking on the stove. We asked her if we could have it served in bread instead of with rice. Of course!! Can we get some chili peppers chopped up on top? YES!!! Can we get some nescafe with condensed milk!! Are you kidding?? ICI, TOUT EST POSSIBLE. Even dessert? YESSS (orange slices).
For the trip, this was a top-3 if not top-2 sandwich, and that is saying a lot.
Outside, Mariam’s daughter was grilling brochettes. Spoiled for choice!!
Rejuvenated, we got back on the bikes. The destination was a small village called Doucki. It wasn’t far, or so we thought.
This is the third installment in a series of posts about our scooter trip around West Africa. If you need to catch up: Part 1, Part 2.
It’s 100 kilometers from Abené to Ziguinchor, the capital of Casamance. We weren’t in a hurry, so we took our time, savoring the four-story tall Fromager trees and the yellow-billed kites patrolling the borders between salt marsh and forest. Walls of green would close in on the road, but before the vegetation could squeeze out the tarmac, a village would spring up, round houses of banco sharing the land with towering baobabs. Kids would chase after us, smiling and laughing and waving, while the villages’ older residents would stop and stare, sometimes mouth agape, at the two crazy toubabs riding pimped out jakartas.
It was a beautiful ride. On several occasions, we both stopped and smiled, exchanging a look that said “are you seeing what I’m seeing?” By the time we reached the maze of cobblestone causeways that led up to the Casamance river, I was irrevocably in love with Senegal’s southern province.
Once in Ziguinchor, we pulled into Hotel le Perroquet, which was recommended to us by Simon from the Little Baobab. It was a good recommendation. We immediately found ourselves sitting next to the river, cold beers in hand.
Few things are better than a day of riding followed by a cold beer next to a river.
Fishermen loaded up their boats next to the Perroquet’s terrace. Further down, larger boats were packed with mountains of ice, an indication that they would be going a significant distance out to sea. We drank beers and watched the fishermen until sunset. Then it was time for dinner. I had the shrimp curry, Matt had the barracuda, and both plates allowed us to continue our unbroken streak of phenomenal meals in Casamance. We even managed to have bananas flambé for dessert.
The sunrise view from the balcony in front of our room
The following morning, we changed the oil on the jakartas and gassed up for the 150 kilometer journey to Bissau. At this point, the bikes had logged over 2,000 kilometers on the trip. Outside of Matt’s cracked fuel filter in Tambacounda, it was smooth sailing. But we didn’t want to take any chances. When a woman approached us selling gris-gris, we bought two of them and pinned them to the handlebars. We weren’t going to turn down a Diola woman that was selling mystical protection.
Casamance continued to impress on the short ride to the border of Guinea-Bissau. The first stretch of road hugged the Djibelor forest. I almost drove into a ditch on several occasions while staring at birds sailing between the trees (I should mention that Casamance is a world renowned bird watching destination). While cows, goats and sheep are unremarkable pedestrians on the roads of West Africa, Casamance had vervet monkeys skipping across the tarmac, and we saw a number of them right before reaching the border.
It was our second time checking out of Senegal in about eight days. Once again, we had no issues. We then walked across an imaginary line and suddenly everyone was speaking Portuguese to us. My Portuguese begins and ends with “obrigado” (thank you), so I ended up thanking a lot of people at the border. We learned that we wouldn’t be able to get a laissez-passer for the jakartas until we got to the customs post further down the road in São Domingos. Thankfully, after the policeman’s initial confusion over my identity card, he accepted that I was in fact Malian and let me in the country.
We arrived in São Domingos about fifteen minutes later. We were delighted to see a group of customs agents lounging on a patio, joking and laughing hysterically. It’s always preferable to be received by government agents who are in a good mood. We were sent to an incredibly pleasant woman named Cristina. She filled out the paperwork for the bikes and then told us where the parties were in Bissau.
Further up the road, we stopped in a village for lunch and a cold beer. The beers were very cold, but there wasn’t much in the way of tables. The barman set us up with a sack of cement, though, and that was just fine. I ate a sandwich that I had bought from a nice woman on the side of the road. The sandwich cost me twenty cents, so I couldn’t really complain when I realized it was nothing more than two pieces of bread soaked in oil with some crushed sardines in between. Matt made his own sandwich with a product he bought in the Gambia. It was called “Chicken Paste.” A bit of chicken paste and some hot sauce on a baguette and Matt is a happy man (for the record, I tried some of the chicken paste, and I would eat it again).
We were supposed to be entering this corridor of dysfunction – Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Sierra Leone, Liberia – but so far the roads were fine and we had just drank some of the coldest beers on the trip. Shortly after, we pulled up to a police checkpoint and a friendly policewoman named Khadija inquired about our trip and life in Mali. She was ecstatic when I showed her pictures of Bintou and Andre. There was no extortion or attempts for a bribe. Obviously you can’t distill the inner workings of a country on a brief scooter trip, and it was clear Guinea-Bissau had some serious challenges to overcome (electricity infrastructure for a start), but so far it was nothing like the backwards basket case some people described to us before we left.
Traffic was light as we cruised into Bissau. It was a Monday afternoon, and the city was gearing up for carnaval festivities which were set to begin the following week. We were warned in advance that affordable accommodation in Bissau is hard to come by (as we understood it, the electrical grid is extremely limited and most places have to rely on generator power). We tried repeatedly to make reservations at two hotels recommended to us by Simon, but we struck out on both and ended up at Hotel Kalliste, which Matt found while searching online.
The Lonely Planet website describes Kalliste as “little more than a scruffy fallback option.” It was indeed a bit scruffy, and it was our fallback option, but we loved it. Fernando, the Corsican owner, was clearly unconcerned by Lonely Planet’s review. The hotel was nearly fully booked. We snagged the last room, and while it was un peu fatigué, it was also clean and perfectly comfortable.
Downstairs, Kalliste had a restaurant and bar that opened onto the street. Like any good maquis, the patio blurred the line between public and private property. Throughout the evening a healthy mix of people floated in and out. Bissauians young and old, Corsicans, drug dealers, Portuguese. In a bizarre moment of serendipity, we ran into a German named Andy, who Simon had told us to contact once we arrived in the country. This dude lived down the coast, towards the border of Guinea-Conakry, but he happened to be on the terrace of our hotel in Bissau on this particular night.
Later in the evening, we took a taxi into the next neighborhood where we had mind-blowing chorizo which we washed down with Super Bock beers. Afterwards, we wandered back in the direction of the hotel, stopping at a street side caipirinha stand.
This woman, Routi, took such care with her craft that it reminded me of Maiga and the sandwiches he used to make on the Badalabougou Bla Bla street. Maiga would take nearly ten minutes to make a single sandwich, but he was a true artist, delicately flinging chili sauce onto every piece of meat, dabbing condensed milk (his secret ingredient) on the bread and carefully arranging the frites so that you would find one in every bite.
Routi made caipirinhas with the same attention to detail. The Bissau take on this Brazilian cocktail has a mix of fruit, sugar and cana, a liquor that falls somewhere between cachaça and jet fuel. Routi took her time with each drink, mixing and shaking, slicing pineapple and orange and zesting limes. In between her hypnotic cocktail creation, we chatted with a young couple and one of Routi’s friends. They were all just hanging out on the street corner, enjoying each other’s company and the evening air.
We drank our caipirinhas and then hung out with Routi and her friends for a bit. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel where we had a late night feast of grilled seafood. We ended the evening with a few beers at the nightclub that was attached to Kalliste, taking advantage of a quiet night to customize the dj’s playlist.
In the morning, we had chorizo omelets and espressos on the patio. We then packed up our things and said goodbye to Fernando and the Guinean barman who enjoyed speaking French with us. A la prochaine! You know you will end up back somewhere when you already feel nostalgic upon leaving.
We had about 200 kilometers in front of us in order to arrive in Gabu, near the border of Guinea-Conakry. In the coming days, we would say goodbye to endless sealed roads and give the jakartas their first true test. Click here for the next chapter.
This is the second installment in a series of posts about our scooter trip around West Africa. If you need to catch up: Part 1.
The above picture sums up my time in Dakar. Along with several associates, I was more or less a complete degenerate. The oversized blanket I was parading around with was given to me by a waitress who recognized that I was freezing cold and possibly mentally ill. This is what happens when you ride 1,200 km in 3 days on a Chinese scooter and then have a booze-fueled reunion with friends.
Dakar was too much fun. C’était la fête quoi. Let’s flash forward to where I can remember things clearly: our departure. I was sweating alcohol and battling a nauseating headache, but I managed to stay upright on the jakarta and make it to the highway. The omni-directional wind situation had not changed. Except now we were dealing with what my friend Hannah would call an existential hangover. If we got anywhere close to the Gambian border, this day would be considered a massive success.
At Mbour, we took a slight detour to the beach resort town of Saly. It was a bit too much of a beach resort town. We grabbed a quick lunch and then continued towards Fatick. Before we arrived there, Matt made a smart call to pull off the road near a large tree. It was time for a nap.
Almost immediately after hopping off my bike, I stepped on this:
Things were not going well at this point, but 40 minutes of deep sleep can change everything. Fanned by a light breeze, we laid out our bedrolls and passed out. This was the first step in a miraculous recovery.
I still felt as if I had been struck by a blunt object when I woke up, but my energy had returned. We got back on the bikes with renewed purpose. Further down the road, we stopped in a village where I got a haircut by Lamine, an entrepreneurial young man who was selling clothes and renting speakers for ceremonies in the same space as his barbershop.
Lamine in his place of business.
After a 50 cent haircut and some good conversation about life in rural Senegal, we were back on the road. Before long, we were in Fatick, a charming town surrounded by salt marshes. Fatick’s historical importance is tied to the Serer ethnic group, the third largest in Senegal. Many of Senegal’s most well known cultural innovations have their roots in the Serer Kingdom of Sine, including the Sabar drum. We took our time rolling through the town, and then we had a decision to make.
We could head directly south on an unfamiliar road towards a river crossing, of which we knew nothing, and then bush camp somewhere. Or we could go to the larger town of Kaolack and find a hotel. The first option was a big question mark, so we chose that one. It turned out to be the right decision.
It was a gorgeous ride down what’s apparently called the R61. The landscape alternated between salt marshes and patches of forest. We crossed narrow causeways over shallow water where egrets waded. Every now and then a sept place cruised past, but we mostly shared the road with donkey carts and groups of high-school-age kids taking their time on the walk home.
It’s always enjoyable to see a goat free-styling on a donkey cart (or a horse cart in this case).
The road ended abruptly at a river crossing. There was a ferry making its way over from the other side, but the sun was setting and we still didn’t know where we were going to sleep, so we opted for one of the private pirogues that was already filling up with passengers. The jakartas were hoisted up and we squeezed in as the last two on board. Everyone was given life jackets and off we went.
On the other side we found ourselves in Foundiougne. Families sprawled out on thatch mats in front of their houses, joking and playing cards as the sun went down. We stopped at a boutique run by two friendly Mauritanians and bought water, canned mixed vegetables and a few onions to supplement our instant noodles.
We headed out of town to scout for a place to camp. We came up empty for a few kilometers, but then found a stretch of beach perpendicular to one of the causeways. Cutting back in from the beach, Matt spotted what turned out to be the perfect bush camp, flat and open in the middle but surrounded by trees.
We set up camp and then cooked our deluxe instant noodles, with the extra ingredients we bought chez les Mauritaniens. Sleep came easy, but I was quickly woken up by what sounded like a roaming pack of wild dogs. They were not in our camp and were probably somewhat far away. I was shitting bricks nonetheless. Matt was unconcerned, and with good reason. We were not far from several villages. The threat from wildlife was minimal. If we were going to have an unlucky interaction with an animal, it was going to be a goat wandering into our camp and eating our oreos. I went back to sleep and woke up at sunrise.
Feeling refreshed, we packed up our camp and got ready for a relatively light day of riding. We did have a border crossing in front of us, though, and another water crossing. The road was quiet until we approached Karang, on the Gambian border. We checked out of Senegal in a few minutes and then heard our first “Welcome to the Gambia.” It’s always bizarre when you can walk 50m and everything switches from one language to another. Of course, everyone on both sides was speaking Wollof.
I had another chance to try my Malian identity card, and this time I was successful. I paid $2 for my laissez passer instead of the $25 visa on arrival I would have been obligated to purchase otherwise. I am Malian after all!! The customs agents made their play to get an extra $10 off us, but nobody took issue with the actual paperwork of the jakartas.
From the border, it was a short ride to Bara and the day’s main event, the ferry to Banjul. The ferry has set departure times and we happened to arrive when it was leaving. We quickly bought tickets and gunned it down the pier, cheered on by the dockworkers gesturing wildly for us to hurry up. We made it on, but the ass end of my jakarta was hanging off the edge of the boat and they couldn’t secure the gate. After some careful arrangements, we somehow fit both jakartas in between a minibus and a very unhappy cow that was tied up and laying on the ground.
The ferry crossing takes about twenty minutes. It was a pleasant ride. I ate orange slices and scanned the horizon for interesting river boats while trying not to trip over sacks of rice.
We were the last ones off the boat. After skating around a few trucks, we made it out of the port, avoiding the chaos that was accumulating around the vehicles that had already disembarked. We ended up next to the Gambian river on an empty strip of road that did not look right. Clearly this was not the road we were supposed to be taking?
We timidly pulled up to a police checkpoint to ask some questions. Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s ruler from 1994 until just a few days before we arrived in the country, had just left for permanent exile in Equatorial Guinea. This was good news for the country and the region. That said, the new president Adama Barrow had not yet been inaugurated (he would arrive several days after us), and we had little information as to how police were conducting their duties in this period of limbo.
But the police were all smiles and happily told us that we were on the right road to the Senegambia junction, where Matt needed to drop off his passport to get a Guinean visa. It was late afternoon, but still within the limits of restrictive embassy hours. We made a beeline to the Guinean embassy only to find out that the consular officer had gone out. The security guard told us to come back later. We went off to get water and sim cards. When we returned, the security guard spelled out that this dude was not coming back anytime soon. “You must return in the morning.”
The consular officer was sounding increasingly elusive, so we decided to find a hotel nearby in order to stake out the Guinean embassy the following day. It was immediately clear that Serekunda, a kind of suburb of Banjul, was a parallel universe of the United Kingdom. This was part of the menu at our hotel:
Premier league football was on every TV screen at the bar and a full English breakfast was available at any time of day. It was surreal, but then again, Gambia continued to be part of the Commonwealth long after independence. Jammeh severed ties in 2013, but Adama Barrow has already talked about rejoining the union. Serekunda seems to exist in its own particular British bubble. Many British expats have taken up residence in the suburb, and Thomas Cook has a seasonal colony of holidaymakers around the corner.
The Dandimayo Hotel was excellent, though. Great staff, good food, cold beers and well-appointed rooms.
Down the street from the Guinean embassy, we found a car/moto wash. The jakartas were a bit dirty after 1,400 kilometers.
We had two things on the docket in Serekunda. Matt needed a Guinean visa, and I wanted to meet up with Simon Fenton, who I have corresponded with online for the past several years. Simon owns an ecolodge in Casamance that he runs with his wife, Khady. He is also an author, having now written two books about his newfound life in West Africa. Matt and I planned on staying at his place in Casamance, but we would also cross paths in Serekunda as Simon was working on the Bradt guidebook for the Gambia.
We met up with Simon at one of the many bars on the Senegambia strip and quickly discovered we enjoyed each other’s company. We downed Julbrews at a good clip as we exchanged stories and extracted all the Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry knowledge from Simon’s brain.
Later in the evening, Simon took us to a Liberian bar where the beers were almost free. The kitchen behind the bar churned out fried chicken and collard greens and the stereo cranked Nigerian pop songs. After the Liberian bar, we made our final migration to an open air nightclub. It was good fun, but things started getting hazy and I was running out of steam. The last thing I can remember was twisting the dj’s arm to play Sidiki Diabate. I promptly collapsed when I got back to the hotel.
I had a manageable hangover the following morning, nothing like the aftermath of Dakar. Before the julbrews had taken hold the previous day, we had talked to Simon about taking the scenic route to Casamance. Instead of the Senegambia highway, we would take a quiet road on the Atlantic coast and cross into Casamance on a canoe.
It took us less than an hour on a sealed road to get to the border. It was another beautiful ride. Since heading south from Dakar, the scenery was increasingly dramatic, and we were really looking forward to what lied ahead in Casamance.
We pulled up to the Halahine River, where there was a very relaxed Gambian immigration officer stamping passports. We checked out of the Gambia and then went looking for the pirogue that would take us across the river into Casamance. Once we found our man, we explained that we had the jakartas to transport as well. His non-reaction made it clear that this would not be the first time his pirogue was loaded with motorcycles. We pulled up to the river and unloaded our baggage. Ganja smoke wafted out of the small bar at the water’s edge. We chatted with a friendly Gambian girl and a rasta as the bikes were loaded onto the boat.
Loading up the jakartas
A shot of the river taken by Oumou the Drone (named after Oumou the Rabbit who outlived all the other rabbits at the Sleeping Camel. We are hoping Oumou the Drone has similar longevity). South of the River is Casamance, Senegal, north of it is the Gambia.
There is no immigration post on the Casamance side of the river, so we technically reentered Senegal as undocumented aliens. A problem for another day. We hopped on the bikes and headed down a sand track straddled by dense forest. Abené was just a few kilometers away, but the skinny tires of the jakarta struggled in the sand. While we did nearly fall off the bikes at every turn, we actually had a ball fish-tailing through the jungle, and it was one of the most memorable rides of the trip.
Eventually the jungle thinned out and houses started springing up. We were soon on the main drag of the village of Abené. Our eyes grew wide at the sight of small buvettes and maquis. This was our kind of town.
Simon’s place is called The Little Baobab, but most Abené residents know it as Chez Simon and Khady. It didn’t take long to find someone that knew where it was located. He was even willing to show us the way on his bicycle.
Simon was still in the Gambia, but we were warmly greeted by his family. Khady showed us to our bungalows, which were built with materials readily found on the property. They were clean and comfortable, a lot more so than we expected for a jungle lodge.
A part of the Little Baobab as seen by Oumou the Drone
I don’t want to get carried away with the superlatives, but the Little Baobab is a special place. At no point did I feel like a paying customer at a hotel. I felt like a member of Simon and Khady’s family. The teranga (Wollof for hospitality) was in full effect.
The other guest that was staying at the Little Baobab while we were there, Rusty aka Daddy Cool, was one of many repeat visitors to the hotel. In fact, his daughter was also a repeat visitor. It was easy to understand why. In addition to the hospitality, the place is just relaxed. You can feel your blood pressure drop when you walk through the gate. The icing on the cake is Khady’s excellent cooking and a bar stocked with ice cold Flag and Gazelle.
poulet braisé, one of the many delicious meals we ate at the Little Baobab
Simon and Khady’s place was an attraction in itself, but the village of Abené had plenty to boast about as well. Once we settled into the Little Baobab, we had a wander around town. After twenty minutes of enjoyable meandering, chatting up roadside vendors and scouting small bars and cafés, we arrived at the beach…
…where we found cold gazelles. There were maybe 6 or 7 other people on the beach. Two girls joined us in the bar and we had a funny conversation about our jakarta trip and Yahya Jammeh. We headed back down the main drag while there was still daylight. Multiple reggae parties were on offer that evening, but we retired early to the Little Baobab where we enjoyed a few beers and the poulet braisé pictured above.
The following day, we made a trip up to the Gambian border to get our paperwork in order. The Senegalese immigration officer was not impressed with our cross-the-border-on-a-canoe maneuver, but a cold drink helped change his demeanor. Afterwards, we visited the larger town of Kafountine, also on the coast.
An arrogant pelican walking around an auto repair shop in Kafountine
In Kafountine, we stopped at a small bar and restaurant called Chez Khathy. I ate monkfish brochettes and drank an icy Gazelle. The fish was exceptional, tender but firm, perfectly grilled with a citron marinade. It was one of the most memorable meals of the trip and my life. It cost about $5 in total.
Unfortunately, we were a few weeks late for the screening of the Phantom Menace, a real bargain at 40 cents.
Back in Abené, we visited the sacred Bantam Wora, 6 massive fromager trees that have joined together into a true freak of nature:
The sacred tree(s) of Bantam Wora and Oumou the Drone almost getting KO’ed by a yellow-billed kite.
To get a sense for how big the tree truly is, have a look at the following picture of me inside the tree’s roots.
Bonfire at the Little Baobab with Simon and Khady’s family and Daddy Cool
Working on my tan with a little help from the red earth
Rice with a sauce from Casamance called kaldou. Chili, lime and hibiscus leaves drove the flavor. Another delicious meal in Abené.
Back on the beach. Stay tuned for the feature film
We were reluctant to leave Abené and the Little Baobab, but Bissau was calling, and so were Bintou and Andre back in Bamako. We said farewell to Khady and the family and Daddy Cool. It was time to head to Ziguinchor, the capital of Casamance.
Up next: The majestic roads of Casamance, riverside beers in Ziguinchor, and our first Lusophone country. Bem vindo a Bissau!!! Click here for the next chapter.
I'm Phil. I live in Mali, where I run a hotel and restaurant. I also teach people how to draw camels. If you like what you see on this site, you can subscribe by RSS or email. You can also follow me on twitter:
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