|En route to Nouakchott|
The decision was taken. We had to continue south via the tarmac in order to make it to Mali on time. The pistes through the desert partially served as a shortcut, but at this point we could not afford the time to give it another try. After doing some final work in the morning on the 690, we hit the road to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. Late at night and after a lot of wandering around the capital an auberge was found, much to our relief.
|Gearing up for the day.|
|Morning coffee at the auberge|
|In the streets of the capital|
|The fateful mini bus|
|Note the alignment of the lights.|
|Striping down the cockpit.|
|The ever curious crowd of kids.|
Having lost almost 3 hours we knew Kiffa was out of the question, but we hit the road anyway. The conditions of the highway had changed dramatically, it was no longer a highway in any sense. It featured a very narrow strip of asphalt with sand on either side, and many, many animals. Camels, cows and goats roamed the sides, hiding behind small trees and bushes. The roadkill we saw the next few days was into the hundreds of animals, literally!! So we had to pay attention. Driving was extremely tiring. At some point late in the evening while we were looking for a village to stay, a camel decided to cross the street. I slammed on the brakes hard trying to avoid it. Alex behind me had lost his attention for seconds, and that was all that was required. He tried to avoid both me and the camel by braking and passing between us, but the space was limited. He hit me with a high speed, his left side pannier smashing on my right one. I had never seen him coming so when I heard the loud bang at the same instant I felt the 640 doing figure eights on the road. I somehow managed to keep it up, while Alex's pannier got detached from the hit and was tumbling along me on the tarmac.
|The 690 took most of the hit|
|Nothing to say at this point.|
|Alex's pannier messed up badly!|
|A lovely place to have dinner at the end of a "lovely" day!|
|The repair shop!|
|Looking for something to cool down.|
|Heat dried meat. Yeah!|
|Siesta time. Note the goat eating.|
|Refueling from our own reserves.|
That night we met at the auberge we were staying a German who lived in Togo and used to drive up to Germany on his car at least once a year. He shared some interesting stories and some really good info on what lies ahead. And one thing got our attention. The road from Kiffa to Ayoun el atrous that we had to cross tomorrow was horrible. How bad can it be, we thought just before Morpheus came over...
|Here you go, part of the national highway of southern Mauritania connecting Kiffa with Ayoun el Atrous. Yes really!!|
|Only 43 degrees Centigrade.|
|Main road closed indefinitely.|
|And this is the in-between...|
|This is a paved section...|
|This is a typical police checkpoint. We had to go through dozens!|
At some point we made it to the border. It did not look like much, only a couple of huts and some really really bored officials. We cleared Mauritania fast and went to the Malian side. Thank god, no minefield this time!! At the Malian side we got visas, which was much simpler than we thought, cleared customs and we were ready!!! We were finally entering the real Africa!!!! Neither of us will miss Mauritania, that was for sure.
It is true what many travelers say. Borders are not just lines on a map. Things change once you cross one. The scenery around you changes. The people change. Everything in Mali was different. We had left the Sahara and entered the Sahel. We were both happy. Nioro was our next stop for the night. This little town was a nice surprise after all those hellish days. We found an auberge to stay, and hit the town roads for some dinner. Ate among other locals at a food stall, a small table with the food on it and some benches surrounding it. Next to us a small grill, where brochetes were sizzling and an open fire with a big pan for frying potatoes. We had missed some good food, and this one was superb. And it only costed a euro each. From there we sniffed out the local bar, more like three tables in an empty yard. We each got a cold beer and stared at the sky, while listening to some local Malian tunes. It was priceless that night!!!
Today we decided to ride down to Bamako, the capital, and see if we could find a solution for the shipping of the bikes back to Europe, so that we dont have to run around for this on our last days. We had less than a week anyway. We arrived straight at the airport, late in the evening, after crossing the entire capital on some not so pleasant temperatures, and some serious traffic jams. By the time we located a cargo company they were closing for the day. We had to go there tomorrow morning. That did not make us happy, but TIA and you have to go along with it. We learned that the hard way the next few days... The night at Bamako was not exactly as we had fantasized it, but at least we ate well at a Lebanese fast food.
We met the cargo agent late, and the bargain went on right away. His initial prices were close to some quotes we had gotten while researching all this from Greece. This did not make us very happy. The bikes had to go via Paris to arrive in Athens. So we went to another agent, and luckily for us he told us that the one and only cargo company that flew out of Bamako to Europe (air france) could only take the bikes as far as Paris. Beyond that we needed another agent! So back we went to the first one, who seemed to have skipped this detail. Indeed after a phone call he confirmed this. But he seemed to have someone in Paris to take care of the matter. Everything was happening with an African pace, and it was already late in the afternoon. The price quote we got went up considerably when compared with the first one. What was also odd was the fact that he was calculating everything based on the weight of the bikes, while most airlines care about volume. We asked him about it a number of times, but he insisted that weight it was. So we decided that we would load the bikes on four palettes, which we would somehow be connected together. With a last disappointing and expensive quote, we decided that there was not much to be done. We had to hit the road anyway, as it was already 5 in the evening. Our last attempt to reach the legendary town of Timbuktu had just gone down the drain. There was not enough time. It was late on Tuesday, and by Thursday we had to be back in Bamako, load the bikes on Friday, and Saturday depart ourselves. We though we would make the best of what we had left, and decided to head to Djenne. Djenne is a small town/village situated between the Niger river and one of its smaller side rivers. It is known mostly for its Mosque, which is made entirely out of clay, and it is considered the largest clay structure in the world.
The road to Djenne was a typical Malian road. Medium quality tarmac, narrow, no lines. But the scenery was what made everything beautiful. We had gotten tired of the emptiness of the desert, and now trees were all over the place. Among them small village with huts made out of mud with thatched roofs. And mangoes. A lot of mangoes. Everywhere you stopped there were baskets of juicy succulent tasty mangoes! It even smelled like mango on some of those villages. The heat on the other hand was excruciating. May is considered the hottest and most humid month in Mali. It is the month that the hamattan blows, a wind coming from the desert, making the atmosphere very heavy. And wearing our riding gear in 42 degrees of humid heat, was too much. At some point late in the evening, we stopped in a small village where we had noticed some clay ovens baking meat. Indeed they were roasting goat. We ordered two portions to go, since we were planning to eat it at our campsite later that day. The guy grabed a used sack of cement. He tore the outer leafs, and shook the cement dust of the inner ones. He then packed the cooked goat in IT!!! And that is how everyone did it, in all of those bakeries at the villages. In used cement sacks. So with our goat "take out" we left and took the first dirt road off the "highway" to find a campsite. Soon we noticed that the upper frame that held the left pannier of the 690 had snapped off!!! This meant we called it a day, right there and then. We would deal with it in the morning. By that point we were so oblivious to such damages after what we had gone through in Mauritania, that we did not even care. We lit a fire and reheated the goat, and ate off the cement bag wrap!!! It was amazing!!
Even without the rain fly on, the tents were extremely hot during the night. Neither of us could rest properly, and by 6 am we were up. We did a wonderful job splinting the broken frame with a tent pole and some duct tape, and then reinforced the whole thing with some sling and wire. It was as good as new, maybe even stronger. We hit the road and headed for Djenne. It was decided not to go through tarmac, but to cross the river on boat, and from there take a 200 kilometer piste to Djenne. So at the town of S.... we headed north towards the river. What an experience it was this river crossing! We had two alternatives, a small metallic floating barge, that looked very hard to get on to, since we had to get the bikes into the river and then up a slippery metal ramp with wet tires and no friction. So we opted for the larger RO-RO (roll on roll off). A short ferry trip and we were at the opposite bank. But hey, they dropped the ramp and it went right into the water, not on dry land. I was first and I could not see through the murky water how deep it was. Or how stable. Ah, this trip is full of surprises I thought, and hit on the gas. Luckily it was neither deep nor slippery. We both got off, and headed into the Sahel, following beautiful dark red coloured dirt roads. And then it happened. Alex lost pressure on the rear tire. Luckily he discovered that it was not a flat, but a malfunctioning valve, which had no cover and got some dirt in it. We changed the valve mechanism and inflated the tire with our little electric pump. The heat was shearing at that point. Off we went again, or more like, off I went, because after 15 minutes I noticed that Alex was not behind me. I turned around and found him under the same tree he had changed the valve, this time with the rear tire off the 690. Apparently the valve had gotten stressed by driving the tire deflated that it had been cut off completely after only a few meters of riding. We changed the tube with a new one and again inflated the tire. All was good. We got it on the 690 and pushed on. Nothing was stopping us, we would make it to Djenne, that we knew. Luckily the riding was not hard. It was quite flat only with some occasional deep holes. We passed through many small villages. Our only tormentor was the heat. It is hard to describe it in this blog. The way we felt, was like being immobilized. You could only perform necessary functions and movements. Anything extra, meant sweat and heat exhaustion. Our water supplies were running low. But Djenne appeared in the horizon, and we went straight to a mini market for a cold bottle of water. Oh, we could do anything at that point for some beer. Really crispy cold beer. And frozen glasses to pour it in.... Ah, the simple things in life!!!
From there we drove around the town in search for a place to stay. Due to the continuous and extreme heat (42-43 degrees) and humidity, we had heard that many people opted to sleep on the roof tops of the buildings, only with a mosquito screen for protection (we were after all in a high alert malaria region at this point, so besides taking a daily pill we had to be as careful as possible). So we found this auberge that allowed us to set up on the roof, and they even provided us with mosquito screens. The night was cool enough up there, but the sun rises at 5.30 am so we were up for an early start.
We toured around the town with a young Malian as a guide. He took us through narrow streets were we had glimpses of the everyday life. The standards of living were below anything imaginable. People were surviving only with the bare essentials. The sewers consisted of an open duct in the center of the street, and everything was built out of clay. Everybody worked, which included even young kids helping on all kinds of chores. We visited a local bogolan maker. Bogolan is a type of cloth made locally which is colored with the use of mud, leafs and other earthy materials. It is left to dry under the sun and then washed. Amazing patterns are created in this manner. We could not resist on a couple souvenirs, probably the only thing we bought on the entire trip. From there Alex visited the famous clay mosque and had a glimpse inside this amazing mud structure.
We had decided to return via a longer piste, that would save us some mileage, as the asphalt did a big loop at that part. Most of the road was easy driving on red African soil. But then suddenly and with no warning it became nasty. Sandy tracks among very sparse vegetation. The temperature rose significantly. We did not have a thermometer to properly measure it, but it would not be an exaggeration if we estimated it at close to 45 degrees. As a result we both had a heat stroke attack. Our inner body temperature rose fast, we basically had fever, as our system could not cool down, and we started shivering under our sweaty riding gear. We had to stop and cool off somehow, this was becoming an emergency. A large tree provided enough shade, so as to avoid the blazing sun. We stripped our riding gear and tried to regain normal body temperatures and stop shivering. This had happened really fast, we had gotten in this condition in something like an hour. After resting for a while we had to push on, although we both felt utterly destroyed. Luckily the piste changed into the red flat roads really fast, which let us bring up the speed on the bikes and thus cool off more efficiently. When we hit the asphalt it was late in the evening. We knew that driving back to Bamako meant that we would have to ride under night for an hour. And this is normally ok, that is if your bike has a functioning headlight, which was not the case for the 640 after the accident in Nouakchott. So Alex took the lead and I followed closely trying to memorize the route that I would see from his lights, and drive it in the dark. NOT a pleasant experience I might say, but slowly, really slowly, we made it to Bamako. The air conditioning and the shower at the hotel was a blessing!!!!!
After splitting the things that we would carry on the plane with us, and getting rid of some other stuff that we no longer needed, we headed for the cargo agent to get the bikes ready for shipping. This involved a lengthy process of negotiations, followed by a break for afternoon prayer, then a break for lunch, and then some more bureaucracy. TIA after all, so we had to go with the flow. We were both surprised when the agent insisted that the volume of the bikes did not count, and that all we had to do was tie them as they were on two palettes each. Of course this took some time, because we had to find the palettes and then go at the cargo hangar, but at the end the bikes were ready. They were lifted by a Clark, weighted and ready to get loaded. Or so we thought.....
Back at the agents office late in the evening, he did some last calculations and then he hit us. He hit us hard with a price that we could not even fathom, let alone pay. All of a sudden the calculations were not done on the basis of weight but on the basis of volume. And the way the bikes were, they took a lot of space!!! We denied to pay accusing him that he had promised something else. It was getting late and it was Friday, and they all wanted to go home. But we were desperate, because this was way off our budget. Way off!!! So we managed to persuade them that we were going to repack the bikes. They were not happy but we got them to go back to the cargo hangar. We took the bikes off the palettes. The plan now was to pack both of them and the luggage only on two palettes. This was a loading surface of 241cm by 80cm only!!! We took off the front tires, the front fenders, the steering wheels, the mirrors, half the rear rack frame, and compressed the bikes on their suspensions in order to both stabilize them as well as to save some height. It took a tremendous amount of effort and ingenuity but after 3 very sweaty hours (it was baking hot inside that hangar) the two KTM's were miniaturized!!!! This resulted on the price going down by half from what the original was, which was well worth the effort. Still bitterly expensive, but there was no other option (besides selling the bikes in Mali). Back at the hotel bar, cold beer never felt so nourishing...
One last time at the cargo agent in order to make the payment and deal with all the paperwork, as yesterday we had finished late at night and everybody wanted to go home. From there our new friend and driver Ali took us in the center of Bamako, for one last meal. His instructions were very clear, he had to take us to where the locals eat, not a tourist trap. In the middle of a busy market, on muddy and filthy streets, there was a wooden table with a couple of benches. On the table a number of pots with your options for topping the rice. Alex went for the tomato beef stew, while I opted for the gumbo. Both were fantastic, and the whole experience rather surreal (and it only cost something like a euro for each).
We strolled around the streets for a while and then went back to the hotel to relax and pack. That was it, we were gathering our things and our thoughts. Almost one month had gone by.
We had ridden 9.300 kilometers through 2 continents and 6 countries, while driving non-stop for 24 consecutive days without a rest. We had encountered temperatures ranging from the mid 40's down to snow and freezing weather. Rains, sandstorms, and scorching sun were all there. We had seen changes in scenery that your eyes cannot even fathom, from the high Atlas in Morocco, to the unimaginable emptiness of the Sahara desert, to the red soiled Sahel of Mali. And people. Peoples faces changed continuously along the way, so did their towns, their dresses and their food. This was a trip that we will both cherish for the rest of our lives. For all of you who might question why someone would undergo so much effort, stress, tiredness, danger but joy as well, we answer with a cliche.
When George Mallory attempted to first climb Mount Everest in 1924 (long before the first confirmed attempt by Edmund Hillary in 1953) he was asked why he would go and do such a thing. He said: "Because it's there..."
This was our own little Everest!