Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Desert: Mike 'The Bike' cycles West Africa - Part 2

Today’s post is our second from Mike ‘the Bike’ McLellan, cycling enthusiast and long-time supporter of Yes to Life who is cycling from Italy to West Africa to embark on the adventure of a lifetime and raise lots of money to help us support people with cancer along the way.

The so called gateway to the Westernmost Sahara is Guelmim in Southern Morocco. As we approached it I could see a completely different landscape to anything I have seen before looming before me. Long barren mountains ran South from that city and were present for several days as we rode South-west to Tan Tan,  and then disappeared as we went on to Tarfaya and then to the border with Western Sahara.

Desert cycling is challenging in many ways, but probably mostly psychologically,  in that very little changes. To the mind this can be a big challenge, gone are the usual things that stimulate us; different landscapes, people, places to rest, cafes, shops. But changes there are. Hills appear and disappear,  the colour and texture of the sand changes, at times fine and almost white, at other times yellow or red, sandy or rocky. Sometimes huge dunes appear majestically in the distance and then are gone.

Shrubs, which are always useful for hiding behind while wild camping, provide a welcome addition to the colour palette. Sometimes we could see the sea to one side, often we could only hear it, the huge Atlantic waves crashing against the red or grey cliffs. When we were near we would walk to the edge and peer gingerly over the precipice.  Distances are enormous, to the East we could see deep into the interior of the desert and try to imagine how far it stretched.

From Guelmim at the beginning to Tiguent at the end was about 2,000 kilometres and took us 34 days including several rest days in towns. For many hundreds of those kilometres there was nothing either side of the road, at other times fishing huts and various tents.

One day we had leaned our bikes on one of these sheds to rest in the shade when its owner arrived. We began to apologise but he said 'no problem, stay here as long as you want' and went into the shed to bring out first an octopus then a huge fish which he wanted to give us. Given the value of such a fish and the obvious difficulty of making a living as a lone fisherman we felt touched by such generosity! We declined the possibility of strapping this several kilo specimen to our bikes and hoped he wasn't offended.

We met some unexpected people on this road; first cars and motorcycles on the Budapest to Bamako rally, then the Spain to Senegal rally. Taxis and mini buses filled to the brim, lorries with massive loads that often blew us off the road in the wind vortex they created while the driver waved cheerfully at us. Sometimes we were cold with a strong wind blowing us along, at other times frazzled in the searing heat of midday. Many times we had sand storms, at first seen as a grey smudge in the distance then as waves of fine sand blowing across us and into every crevasse of eyes and ears.

We hit a crisis the second day in Mauritania when I noticed a wobble in Annie's rear wheel. On closer inspection, a broken spoke on her 700c wheels for which finding spares is difficult in 26 inch wheel Africa. From Niadhibou she put the bike on the bus for Nouakchott while I cycled solo for a few days. In Nouakchott we were in luck, a well stocked little bike shop, including 700c spokes! The desert was hard on the bikes, chains needed
cleaning and oiling almost every day and as we got into Southern Mauritania and the ever increasing presence of spiny trees we got three punctures.

The spiny trees were really telling us that the desert was coming to an end, as was the presence of animals we hadn't seen before like monkeys. In the village of Tiguent we rested in a shady tent and ordered food; a big plate of rice, vegetables and fish. We watched life going on around us, children and goats came in to look at us and then left. Men came in and fell asleep in the corner. Four women came in in spectacularly coloured dresses and chatted and laughed loudly together. This was our last encounter with desert people, a few meters after the village the desert ended.

Suddenly we were cycling along a dirt road through marshland and greenery towards the border with Senegal. I was thrilled by this unexpected change but already part of me missed the incredible feeling of space and openness that the desert gives and that had been ever present over the last few weeks.

The adventure continues....

Please support Mike on his journey by donating here.

You can read about the first instalment of his journey here and follow his trip in more detail on Facebook here.

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