Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Final Furlong, into the Centre of Africa - Part 4

Today’s post is our fourth and final instalment from Mike ‘the Bike’ McLellan, cycling enthusiast and long-time supporter of Yes to Life who just completed his mammoth trip 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.

For most of the journey through Europe then North and West Africa I had been travelling on the coast with its moderating effect on the climate, so it was rarely too hot or too cold. After reaching Casamance in Southern Senegal I headed inland rather than continue into the Ebola ridden countries along the coast and from here it got just got hotter and hotter.

As I said goodbye to my English fellow cyclists Zak and Alice who were taking a different route I crossed the border from Mali to Burkina Faso. I stopped for a long time at the border settling into a comfy chair under a mango tree and chatting to the very friendly Burkina border police. Stopping and resting in the shade during the day had already become a necessity as temperatures soared. I didn't  think it could get any hotter, but it did!

The hardest part of the whole journey was the few days from the Burkina border to the capital, Ougadougou. It had become too hot at night to camp so I planned a route that would bring me to a town, which meant a room in a hotel or guest house each evening. The thought of being under a cooling ceiling fan was enough to give me the strength to keep going.

The trouble with this plan was that I had to put in some serious distances of between 80 and 115 kilometres every day. What's more I soon found that heading North East I was cycling directly into a strong headwind.

Battling against this hot wind coming from the centre of Africa was a severe test, but the task was made much easier by the joy of all the people I met every time I stopped. Their openness and friendliness always amazed me; finding me a chair in some shade, showing me their handiwork, talking about my journey and their lives. Very simple things, but very human too, and the human contact I needed with cycling solo each day.

There was also a new experience, other cyclists who wanted to cycle with me! Usually they were kids, going to or coming back from school. I would hear a noise, look behind me and see that I was being followed by a group that was sometimes as many as 20 strong! They beamed smiles at me and I would smile back and give a thumbs up.

Usually their bikes were not up to much, no gears and usually no brakes either. Sometimes it was all girls, sometimes all boys, in either case there would usually be some more competitive characters who would sweep past me, head down pedalling like crazy. I played along, enjoying their spirit, crouching down to get better wind resistance and putting a determined  look on my face. The more I played the part the more they enjoyed it, shaking a finger to say no I couldn't catch them or just giving an even broader smile. Eventually they would have to turn off and we would wave our goodbyes. Once again I would be a lone cyclist until the next group turned up, I loved it and it also took my mind off the difficulty of the ride!

Reaching Ougadougou I had the luxury of staying with a lovely Dutch 'Warm Showers' couple, Giel and Weis, who immediately took me out to an authentic Italian pizzeria and a live music event. This was certainly a change from my life of the last few weeks! I was also briefly reunited with Alice and Zak who had taken a bus to get to the capital. We went through the rigours of obtaining a Ghanian visa (not easy!) together and then set out South towards Ghana. I had been looking forward to changing directions and getting away from the wind but while in Ougadougou it had changed direction and was now coming from the South!

I decided to stop and have a couple of peaceful days at the St Benoit monastery, so again I waved goodbye to Alice and Zak saying 'see you soon'. However I didn't see them again as struggling with the wind and wanting to make fast progess they got lifts to the border and then down through Ghana.

I felt amazingly refreshed after two days in the monastery, and with new energy I headed for Ghana. Just before the border, riding through a national park early in the morning I saw a large grey shape moving amongst the trees, elephants! Three large females and many young ones of different sizes were right by the edge of the road noisily eating tree branches. I stopped still, spellbound. When I move they stop eating, a young one starts moving away and one of the adults stares at my intently. I'm not scared, I'm too fascinated and grateful to be so close to real, wild elephants!

Ghana looks and feels very different, and I can speak English! It's definitely a wealthier country, but there are some strange anomalies. Every day I spend in Ghana there is at least one power cut. The worst thing about this is when the electric fan
above me stops and immediately I begin to sweat as the temperature rises.

Also wifi, which is my precious connection with friends and family for the first time on the journey becomes difficult to find. Many people have never heard of it, hotels say they have it but I later find they haven't. One person thinks wifi is something to do with wife, and assures me that he can find one for me very easily!

Travelling through Ghana I begin to experience the wet season. Usually in the form of spectacular night time thunderstorms that leave the morning air blessedly cooler. For the first time since northern Morocco the landscape is lush and green. Ghanians also seem very different to francophone West Africa. Evangelical Christianity is everywhere and the singing and speeches booming out of speakers range from beautiful to extremely annoying!

Football, which has been like a religion in virtually all the countries I've cycled through is supported with even greater noise and enthusiasm in Ghana.

The final stage of my ride takes me to Kumasi, which is probably the most congested and crazy city I've seen, and finally  to my finishing point in Accra. The day I arrive in Accra seems unreal and is definitely an anti climax. My stomach, which has not been good since Senegal is having a particularly bad day and I'm more interested in finding places with a loo than thinking that I have reached the finishing line! It takes the next few days waiting for my flight home for that fact to come to the surface.

The whole journey just seems too big, too deep, too rich in experiences for me to take in. I know that is going to take a while.

Trip statistics

Total distance
11,048 kilometres 

Of which;

Italy 469
France 755
Spain 1,908
Morocco 1,620
Western Sahara 953
Mauritania 786
Senegal 1,604
The Gambia 65
Mali 907
Burkina Faso 714
Ghana 900

Plus many kilometres cycling around cities and doing short excursions

I stayed in camp sites and wild camped

I stayed in accommodation that ranged from 'luxury' hotels to mud huts

I stayed with friends and as a guest of Warm Showers hosts (bicycle blog site)

It took me 8 months and 1 week and I raised over £500 for Yes to Life

You can congratulate Mike on completing his journey by donating here and catch up on the first three instalments of his journey here 

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