I Like Motorbikes – A Ride Across Africa

This is Africa.  Known for high temperatures, being the cradle of humankind, diverse flora and fauna, varying people and languages and yet for many western countries it’s an elusive or misunderstood place with many negative connotations about it… Or rather that was the case for me growing up and its partly what spurred me on […]

Mar 28, 2024

This is Africa.  Known for high temperatures, being the cradle of humankind, diverse flora and fauna, varying people and languages and yet for many western countries it’s an elusive or misunderstood place with many negative connotations about it… Or rather that was the case for me growing up and its partly what spurred me on to discover more about this incredible continent for myself.

I even managed to convince my girlfriend that riding our motorcycles down the length of Africa would be a brilliant idea so we set out from England in December 2023 having done very little research and wondering what to expect.

Tom & Lauren's Honda CG125 Single cylinder, 10hp air-cooled motorbikes.

Tom & Lauren’s Honda CG125 Single cylinder, 10hp air-cooled motorbikes.

Here is what we have learnt so far…

Time

Time is a different concept here. There is very little rush and African minutes, hours and days don’t have the same meaning.

If you are told it will be 5 minutes or 5 hours, it’s likely that it won’t be anywhere near as quick. Often there is no way of understanding what is causing the hold up but that’s just how it is. We’ve learnt to be more patient and it has paid off repeatedly. Being held at a police checkpoint, a border or waiting in a restaurant for your meal it all requires the same patience.

If you are in a rush or are like me and want to hurry things along then you need to change for Africa, you won’t change it!

One example of this was arriving at the Gambia/Senegal border – the customs officer aggressively requested a payment for him stamping our passports (approximately 5GBP / 6USD / 125 RAND). I refused knowing it wasn’t required and that was it. We were held and our exit blocked from the building whilst the officer became incensed at my refusal and more aggressive, shouting and demanding!  He obviously hadn’t heard of my reputation for being stubborn as the more he asked, the more determined I was to refuse.

After 20 minutes and speaking with his boss, we were free to go with a smile and well wishes.  Knowing we had time to wait, was on our side and it has served us well many times.

Note, none of this is a bad thing, it’s just different.  We could easily get frustrated, and sometimes do, but we have to remind ourselves TIA (This is Africa!) and things are different here.  Getting frustrated doesn’t change it and is us that needs to adapt to Africa, its not Africa that needs to change for us.

Borders

Previous to this trip the only borders I had crossed were in Europe and always large terminals with clear signage and only travellers, staff or police and customs present. I’m not saying I was shocked at African borders because I had read enough travel books and seen enough films or YouTube videos to know to expect a lot of differences, but I don’t think I was prepared for the onslaught to the senses that some borders can bring.

Unmarked buildings, being swarmed upon by fixers for money changing and sim cards, goats and chickens roaming freely and wild drivers with toxic fume belching vehicles all add to the chaos and stimuli when arriving at borders.

We’ve learnt to never give passports or documents to anyone not in uniform… unless its such a small border that you have to wake up the customs official wearing his best t-shirt and shorts who is lying totally on his desk to stamp your paperwork that is.

It can be a daunting experience but now I enjoy the theatre of it, treating it like a game to see if I can guess right first time which building to enter, and when, makes it all the more entertaining.  I must admit one absolutely key app that helps us research and plan prior to a border crossing is iOverlander.  Without this app we would have undoubtedly paid for things that weren’t necessary or paid more than was required.

For example, pay for the Sierra Leone visa on arrival in USD? That’s $100.  Pay for it in Leones? Ah that’s 800SLE…. Which works out about $35!

Roads

I’ll admit that I was wrong about a lot of things for this trip and my expectation of the roads was also wrong. It’s far better and worse than I expected for many reasons!

In numerous places the major routes have fantastic asphalt surfaces which are a joy to glide along yet that can change without warning to gravel or potholes so deep they’ll swallow a wheel faster than you can blink!

When the asphalt does end, and it certainly will, it can be good hardpacked dirt, a nice gravel track or it can be dust so deep it’ll make you think you’ve landed on the moon. It could equally be a mixture of gravel and sand that’ll remind you of beach time holidays… and this is dry season. I dread to think about the rainy season but we’re surely going to find that out as time marches on.

One of the main roads in Guinea, not the easiest for most motorbikes.

All of this is without even considering the traffic, the African road experience is certainly one that requires full attention at all times and something that tends not to be enjoyable when the sun goes down.

Horns blare to alert you of something (we still haven’t figured out exactly what and why causes one to sound the horn here), small motorcycles dart through gaps that barely look big enough for a person to walk through whilst animals such as cows, goats, dogs and chickens treat the road as there own too. Mix in trucks, vans and cars erupting with diesel fumes and held together largely with hopes and prayers and you have a cocktail of trepidation waiting for you.

We’ve learnt to adapt to the local way and accept that the rules aren’t always rules and travelling the wrong direction on any road is of no concern – expect the unexpected.  Every day we add to the list of “things we’ve seen on the road that we could never have predicted”

Stay safe on your motorbikes, and don't drive at night.

Stay safe on your motorbikes, and don’t drive at night.

People

Many times when people found out of our plans, we’d have people warning us of the dangers of Africa, saying it wasn’t safe and telling us to exercise caution when engaging with the 1+ billion people that call this continent home. Now I don’t doubt there are some bad people and in fact we’ve come across some, however mostly we have found people to be incredible. Almost everywhere we go we are met with smiles stretching from ear to ear, curiosity, well wishes and often handshakes or fist bumps. It’s not uncommon either to have been offered refreshments from those that have the chance to engage with us.

Just a few of the things that have happened are; being offered tea and ending up with a full cooked lunch with fresh bread and omelettes, cars asking us to pull over on dual carriageways to talk with us and take photos, people offering water at the roadside through the Sahara Desert, locals taking us to beaches to meet friends, even helping us find accommodation and so many things besides.

It’s cemented my belief that most people are good and in fact, most people that we have met are great. Smiles and laughter flow our way like a tsunami and despite some of the challenges of the road, it has been these chance meetings with people that choose to go above and beyond to spread kindness, that will forever hold a place in my heart.

You just can’t beat an African sunset.

All of the above are just observations of our short time here.  Africa is a rich tapestry which offers so many interesting and exciting experiences for the intrepid traveller and will in our case at least, give us an abundance of stories to tell in the pub when our time here is over.

TIA.  This is Africa (on motorbikes).

(This article was written by Tom Gould, a Guest Writer for The Africa Rally; to get in touch about joining our team of Guest Writers, or taking part in one of our events, please email the HQ Team on info@africarally.com)

About the Author

A British born passionate motorcyclist, writer, video creator and adventurer with a love of the outdoors. Motorcycles were not always part of his life but now form a huge portion of it.Since passing his test 11 years ago he has owned more than 40 motorcycles, competed in a 24hour off-road endurance, raced on short circuits, created a successful website & YouTube channel and is now setting his sights on bigger adventures! Having ridden more than 75,000 miles around the UK and mainland Europe in those 11 years it has long been a dream for Tom to tackle long distance overland travel, with a Trans-Africa overland trip forming the first leg of a round the world escapade!To connect about the trip or discuss sponsorship & freelance opportunities get in touch via info@ilikemotorbikes.com

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    Very good 😊 👍

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