On the face of it, it's not so very different to Cameroon here. Rolling hills, exotic sounding and lounge-twisting place names, road signs in a language I don't really understand and ribbons of misting, twisting tarmac stretching into the gloom. Over-zealous Old Bill will book you for the slightest infraction, while genial local folk stop by to chew the fat. It’s raining, natch. Then again, it couldn’t be more different here. For a start, it’s the first country I’ve been to in quite a while that I haven’t needed a visa for. It’s colder too, about thirty degrees colder and 6000 miles closer to home. The Kawasaki I’m riding today is different too. For a start, the brakes work fine on the Versys 1000, and that’s handy because it has about a hundred horsepower more than the Tengai. I prefer the paint job on the little 650 though.
I’m back home then. Well, Wales, but close enough. It was an inauspicious end to my African exploits. After ten long days of monsoon rain and bureaucratic pain in Yaoundé I found myself with only two of the three visas I needed to make it to South Africa. Angola was closed. Even a transit visa was not a possibility. The only way through was a two thousand mile detour through DRC to Zambia in the East, and we weren’t talking a cruise along a sealed road. It’s not even a dirt road. It’s a clutch-killing, suspension- spoiling, wheel-wrecking road to hell. In the wet season, trucks can take months to get through, and the wet season had already started. I’d have inevitably ended up on one of those trucks.
It was a dilemma, but in the end the bike made the decision for me, and not for the first time on the trip. It isn’t on fire in a ditch after an engine blow up, and I didn’t throw it down the road or over a cliff. It already had shot brakes, bald tyres, a slipping clutch and a seized ignition barrel, but when the rectifier failed as well, it was time to call it a day. The bike just sighed and gave up, and so did I. None of the problems were terminal, all fixable with a little more time, money and patience, but I was running low on all.
I’d been on the road for four months, and more than half that time was spent waiting around for parts, visas and documents. I just couldn’t face another two weeks cooling my heels in the Cameroonian rain, chasing courier-shaped shadows. The idea of reaching Cape Town had become absurd to me, anyway. Even if I had made it round Angola, I would have had to blast straight through the rest of the trip to get the bike on a boat back to Blighty and me on a plane back to reality. Besides, when I stopped to fuel up for the first time back in Spain and had to put two litres of oil in the Tengai, I didn't think I'd even make it to Africa. When I passed the Tropic of Cancer in the Sahara Desert I was gobsmacked.
Another six thousand miles and another ten countries later I was still going. It’s the most unlikely trip I’ve ever done on a motorcycle. It’s the best trip I’ve ever done on a motorcycle. Before I left, people were falling over themselves to warn me about how hard it is to travel in West Africa. I didn’t understand what they meant. I was regaled with horror stories of corruption, disease, bureaucracy, terrible roads, war, violence and hostility, mostly from people who’d never been there. Now I’m back and I still don’t know what they meant. I found very little of any of those things, and certainly no more than many other parts of the world. What I found was half a billion piss- taking, hip-thrusting, music-loving, drum- thumping, palm-wine-drinking, praying, playing, resilient and, most of all, friendly people. From the Moors of Morocco to the Dogons of Mali to the Voodoo People of Benin, as diverse as anywhere I’ve been. Poverty? Often. Poverty stricken? Rarely.
What I found was a motorcycle continent. Bikes are everywhere and have replaced the donkey as the transportation of choice for the masses, and all the shit those masses need to move. West Africa wouldn’t function without motorbikes, and the skills of the riders are remarkable. Out there, you need those skills to pay the bills, because there is no other way. Think you can ride a bike? Race a bit? Pop a decent wheelie? How about having a go at the West African motorcycle gymkhana? For your first test, you need to move ten long planks of wood all the way across town. You must do it in one single go, because fuel is expensive and you’re riding a 100cc scooter with a flat tyre and no brakes. Bonus points if you pick up some passengers along the way to earn a little extra cash. Round two is the family round. You need to drop little Johnny off at school and then take baby Jenny for her jabs at the clinic.
Johnny’s on your lap and Jenny’s papoosed to your back, it’s fifty miles along a clay track and t's been raining for two weeks. Fancy it? How much faith do you have in your bike ability? No, thought not. The flipside is safety, as you might expect, is pretty much non-existent and the driving is aggressive. It’s a lethal combination. Some things you just can’t un-see, no matter how hard you try, and there’s one particularly horrific accident in Benin that still haunts me today. The only shred of solace is that it would have at least been over quickly for the two lads on the bike.
The great thing about West Africa is that no amount of planning, or preparation, or reading blogs, or watching vlogs will give any sort of a clue how a trip will work out. It’s a part of the world that’s changing fast, mostly for the better, but sadly sometimes not. Borders open and close frequently, new roads get built and old ones washed away, and you might as well do the lottery as try to work out where to get visas. When I was there, I found laid-back conviviality in Burkina Faso. Two weeks later there was a military coup, all the borders and airports were closed and, tragically, blood was shed on the very streets I stayed on. I doubt it even made the news back here.
If you go, you’ll have a completely different experience to me, and what could be better than that? I got pretty much everything wrong on my trip – bike, monsoon, visas, documentation, tools – because I didn’t plan anything. Funny thing is, not planning it turned out to be the only thing I got right.I certainly would not change a damn thing about my grand West African tour, not even the Tengai. Especially not the Tengai. In the October 1991 edition of Bike, the Tengai broke down on the big trailie group test and was described by Phil West as strictly for ‘dullards’. But our Tengai crossed the Sahara, survived open-barrel surgery on the back-streets of Accra, shrugged off multiple monsoons and, most heroically of all, put up with me looking after it for four months. No mean feat. And no, there’s nothing dull about our Tengai.
THE TENGAI LIVES ON
This might not be the end of the road for the doughty Kwaka either. I left it in Cameroon with my new mate and bike mechanic Abraham, who’s trying to fix what he can. All I need is a few visas, a bag full of parts and a bit of cash and I could be back on the road. In fact, I might not need as many parts as I thought, because I’ve just checked the tracker and the Tengai is lapping Yaoundé faster than an airliner in a holding pattern. It seems Abraham has managed to breathe some life into it. You can follow Abraham’s new bike courier business by pointing at: events.biketrac.co.uk/profile/bike-magazine-to-south-africa-on-a-1000-bike/
'THINK YOU CAN RIDE A BIKE? RACE A BIT? POP A DECENT WHEELIE? HOW ABOUT HAVING A GO AT THE WEST AFRICAN MOTORCYCLE GYMKHANA?'