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Trying to look the part.

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.

Click here for the next post.

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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.


After a few Julbrews

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.


Holy crap


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.



Ja·kar·ta \jə-ˈkär-tə\

The capital of Indonesia

a knockoff KTM 110 cc Chinese motorcycle

Matt and I had talked about this trip for a long time. After friend and former Camel resident Brendan traversed the continent on a jakarta, we had ideas about a loop around West Africa, and to eventually sell the trip and variations of it to a certain kind of tourist. Those ideas remained just that until a few weeks ago.

This recon mission began in the Sleeping Camel workshop. Matt conceived a souped up jakarta that would allow us to carry tools, spare parts, food, extra water and fuel, kitchenware and our bedding. He is a skilled welder and metalworker, and it didn’t take him long to build a prototype with his own bike.


He cut 20 liter jerricans in half to make panniers.





He added a shelf on the front to hold a canister of fuel, and he installed a power point (a cigarette lighter socket) that he connected to the bike’s battery.


The finished product with the Guinean highlands as a backdrop (more on that later).

Jakartas can be found throughout West Africa, but the highest concentration of them is undoubtedly in Bamako. Contrary to their branding, jakartas are not made by KTM, an Austrian company best known for off road motorcycles. The jakarta “KTM” stands for KingTown Motors. Or sometimes KiangTown Motors, a good effort by the Chinese company churning out these bikes.

Why are they called jakartas? I have asked many people this question. I have heard two different answers. Some people have told me that the first person to import the bikes came from Jakarta. Others have told me that the bikes were at one time manufactured in Jakarta (or thought to have been manufactured there).

They are inexpensive bikes. In Bamako, a new jakarta is about $700, a considerable investment for many Bamakois, but still far more affordable than a used or new car. Parts and mechanics are both easy to find, and most repair jobs are only a few dollars.

Malians use these bikes to get around town. Some may use them to visit villages up to 100-150 kilometers away from Bamako. Everyone we spoke to before the trip thought we were insane to ride a jakarta for thousands of kilometers through multiple countries.

This much is true: the bikes are not fast. Our average speed hovered around 60 km/hr (about 40 mph), and even less than that on sand track. And speaking of sand, the jakartas handle sand about as well my 1984 SAAB handled ice in 2003 (the tires may not have been 20 years old but they sure felt like it).

Why travel 4,000 kilometers on these turtles? Well, if you were to ask me or Matt, the slow speed is actually the jakartas’ greatest asset. It forces you to focus on where you are instead of just racking up kilometers. Ride for 30 km and stop for a sandwich and a wander. After another 40 km, get a haircut at a roadside barber in a village. Further down the road, stop for a beer at a small maquis. Every time you hop off the bike, you have conversations. For me and Matt, this is the perfect trip.

We wanted to leave on Tuesday, February 7th, but we got into a real debacle at the Malian DMV. One day I will write about that. So we left for Dakar around 9AM the following morning.

We often joked that the most dangerous part of this trip was within Bamako city limits. The traffic may not be as manic as the biggest cities in West Africa, but the sheer number of jakartas keeps the entropy at full throttle. But we zipped out of town unscathed.

In a short while, we were in Kati, cruising past the empty cement trucks parked next to the customs post, getting ready for their return trip to Senegal. Then it was our first stretch of open road. With a tailwind, we blasted towards Kita.

In Kita, we stopped at a service station to refuel and have a snack. We had a funny conversation with the cashier and a random Kita resident while scarfing down beef jerky and degué (sweetened yogurt with millet) in the air conditioned shop. It was during this conversation that we got the first indication of a bad road in Senegal between Kedougou and Tambacounda. But we’ll get to that later.

Some 40 kilometers after Kita, we turned onto a relatively new sealed road that would take us to Kenieba, a stones throw from the border of Senegal. The road was in excellent condition. Every now and then, a truck or a bus would tear past us, trying to break the sound barrier as they teetered around turns and double passed slower vehicles. But otherwise, this was a peaceful stretch of road that slowed down my thoughts.

We stopped in several villages to stretch our legs and refuel. Once the sun began its descent, we stocked up on water and headed into the bush.


We quickly mounted our mosquito nets and then Matt cooked a delicious meal of “mushroom” flavored ramen noodles. After dinner, I was out like a light. A steady breeze meant a good night’s sleep after a long day on the bikes. The following day would be even longer.

We woke up at sunrise and rode for 15 kilometers along the base of a plateau that changed from red to gold in the morning light. In Kenieba, we pulled into the parking lot of a service station. Women grilled brochettes and ambulant vendors vied for their first clients of the day. We grabbed a couple brochette sandwiches and washed them down with a concoction of nescafe and condensed milk. I used to drink these every morning at Madou’s kiosk when I lived in Abidjan. It is the cheap fuel that you can find everywhere, and it’s delicious.


Amadou was the barista doling out the hyper-sweet instant coffees. We eased into unguarded conversation, which is something you can do effortlessly with any Malian you come across. As we left, he gave us benedictions for the voyage ahead. I wished him well with his Arabic classes.

And then we were at the border. We checked out of Mali without issue. Crossing into Senegal would be the first test for the jakartas’ paperwork and my newly acquired Malian identification card. My Malian nationality was rejected almost immediately. The Senegalese police officer said that the Malian ID card is easily counterfeited. This was not an auspicious start to my ID card experiment. I probably could have fought him on it, but I had my American passport, and Americans don’t need visas for Senegal. Problem solved.

A young customs agent received us on the other side of the road. He had a good laugh when we told him that we were traveling to Dakar on jakartas. He then realized that he had never dealt with such a case.

Most jakartas aren’t formally matriculated. Drivers carry a vignette that they buy at the local mayor’s office. These cards confer ownership, but they aren’t made for crossing borders. Matt and I went through the unusual and tiring process of getting license plates for the jakartas, which would normally allow us to transit through Senegal for a certain number of days without issue. The customs agent told us he would need to consult with his chef.

While the chef was deciding whether or not to give us a “laissez passer,” we discussed road conditions with the younger customs agent. We had already heard about a cratered stretch of road that passed through the Niokolo Koba National Park. The customs agent doubled down on that and then repeatedly warned us about lions.

The chef eventually gave us the green light. Once we paid for our laissez passer’s, we were on our way. Getting from the border to Kedougou was straightforward. This road belied what was to come later on.


We arrived in Kedougou around noon. Uniformed schoolchildren walked and rode oversized bicycles alongside the neatly paved roads on their way home for lunch. We refueled in town, eliciting shrieks of laughter from the gas station clerk and other customers as we explained the jakarta trip. We then found a patch of shade in front of a mechanic’s workshop. We scooped up more degue (in Senegal it’s called thiakry, and for my money it’s even better than Malian degue. I think that’s because it’s a bit creamier) and a baguette. We made sandwiches of sardines, Vache qui Rit (a processed cheese that does not require refrigeration) and Sonia chili sauce. This sandwich was a revelation.


After lunch, we pressed on to the Niokolo Koba National Park. It looks easy enough on the map, but that green patch is a nightmare. The park is littered with tank traps and deviations of corrugated dirt track. I crept along like a senile geriatric and still nearly snapped off my foot brake on multiple occasions.


Several signs told us to be prudent, warning us of wild animals. There are indeed lions in this park. There are also hippos, elephants, rare giant Eland antelopes, and the northernmost population of wild chimpanzees in the world. We didn’t see any of these animals, but we did see a bushbuck leap across the road, a giant black scorpion that I thought was dead (it wasn’t), and a squirrel that Matt thought was dead (it wasn’t).


finally out of the park

My shoulders, thighs, knees and ass area were shot by the time we got out of the park. The jakarta was intact, though, and that was encouraging. By the time we rolled into Tambacounda, we were out of daylight and it was time to find a hotel.


A painting in the hotel bar

Matt led us to a hotel he was familiar with. It was clean and comfortable and they had cold beers at the bar. Dinner was a massive plate of chicken, frites and peas with a heap of chili sauce on the side. Everything was right with the world at this point. After a few more beers in the company of the entertaining bar staff, we retired to our air conditioned bungalow to get some sleep before the final leg to Dakar.

Tambacounda to Dakar is a hair over 450 kilometers. In normal circumstances, we would have done that in two days, taking our time in the villages and towns on the way. But we had two friends to meet in Dakar, and one of them only had a couple days there. So we gathered our things at first light and braced ourselves for another mammoth day. Dakar or bust. With stops, we had about 10 hours of riding in front of us in order to arrive in a city of 2+ million people around rush hour.

When we walked out to the bikes, Matt noticed that his jakarta had spent the night leaking gasoline. This was not a promising start to the day. Thankfully, Matt is a mechanic and he travels with spare parts. He quickly found and replaced the culprit, a cracked fuel filter.

Once we got moving, we were locked in. The road itself was impeccable. Quiet villages and massive baobabs punctuated the flat landscape. By the time we reached the salt flats leading into Mbour, arriving in Dakar before sunset seemed like a real possibility. The home stretch was not easy, though.

Matt proposed ditching the crowded two lane road between Mbour and Dakar for the highway, a toll road that sees much less traffic. The highway was considerably better in the sense that you didn’t have to worry about getting smashed by a truck every thirty seconds. In fact, the highway was empty, and it would have been a real joyride to Dakar if it wasn’t for gusts of wind that came from seemingly every direction. Battered by the wind for nearly 80 kilometers, the bright lights of Dakar provided the final shot of adrenaline we needed.


Tired but triumphant, we arrived in Dakar, dodging taxis and minibuses as we made our way to Ngor, on the edge of the Atlantic. It was time for a beer with friends. Little did we know, our trip was just beginning.




Click here for part 2

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Matt and I have just returned from a jaunt through West Africa (well, a part of it anyway) on Chinese scooters. Lots of photos and commentary to come.