Land based travelling across Africa comes in many forms. It comes from backpackers who walk or hitch hike or ride public transport. They are the real, base line economy class travellers. With the people and amongst the people all the time. Going at the people’s pace on the people’s wisdom only. This is the domain of the youth mostly. European youth mainly, finding themselves in Africa and living an African lifestyle.
One step up from the “public transport” league are the bicycle riders. They are the ones that cycle at a rate of a maximum 30kms per day and often far less than that when mud or rain shut them down. They seem to be wanting to release something horrible from deep inside their systems. The cyclists I met were all freeing themselves from broken relationships and not committing to anything other than their love of their bikes. It’s like the hardness of the bike and the roads and the journey had freed them from thinking about their broken hearts.
A big step up is to rely on a combustion engine of sorts. In this category we have the motorcycle men mostly. Though not solely. Mostly men alone, and sometimes the occasional women riding pillion or on their own. They ride anything from a Chinese manufactured 150cc motorcycle at the bottom to the large and heavy Honda Africa Twin at the top. And they ride across the continent because Africa is legendary amongst motorcycle off-road communities for its toughness, requiring of the rider a raw and indestructible resilience to keep going. It’s a challenge that any genuine off-road motorcyclist just has to do to be a somebody significant in the off-road motorcycle global community. West Africa is well known to be way up there. It has a legendary status. The kinda gold standard for genuine off-road motorcycle madness.
At the top end of the road travellers list comes in the relative comfort of the mostly 4×4 overlander tribe with their camper vehicles or their mobile homes of various shapes and sizes. The campers are what their name implies: campers in the form of a VW Combi bus or Landcruiser or Hilux or Hardbody. Whatever works for camping in, or on top of, or even alongside of. A camper on wheels. The mobile home is of a different order. It’s a home on wheels. Typically, the home includes double bed, eating area, kitchen, full ablutions and packing areas all housed in doors. All loaded on the back of a Mercedes or Iveco horse. A massive truck that shields the passengers from the world outside. The ultimate secure home on wheels.
These are the modes if transport of the trans Africa land travellers. And we are learning from them all as we go. They all seem to sing the same song: crossing north to south or south to north of west Africa is the toughest over-landing experience in the world. And many of them have been travelling for years across the world. So they should know something. Their stories of fear and loathing across the continent are as old as the continent itself. Everywhere we go we hear or read them. Stories of the dangers that lurk across the borders. It’s like each country has a story about the other. And each story generates waves of fear in the ears of the listener. But like with all stories from all travellers, they need to be measured against one’s own litmus test of experience. In my experience they seldom match up.
Amongst the overland travelling community there are Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups where travellers ask questions and share experiences of their travels. Their posts are littered with stories of untoward officials seeking bribes or enforcing rules that offend the reasoned sensibility of the western travellers, or officials simply changing rules to suit themselves which upsets the stable mind. One constantly finds stories of dangers of travel through west Africa and what to avoid and what to not. You cannot ignore them. They are on your phone or in your ears wherever you go. And they eat at one’s sense of stability and well-being. Even when one knows that we come from the south, that is we come from the most violent and crime ridden country on the continent. Yet, yet still the stories eat at your sense and sensibility, eat at your inner threshold of what one deems as safety and security.
And all this happens within the lived experience of nothing but warmth and affirmation from every African whom we meet on the road. And we meet plenty of Africans on the road. In the markets and villages and camp sites and countless checkpoints, we have yet to experience a hostile reception from anyone or to pay a single bribe to anyone. Yes, not a single bribe. Only love and affirmation. This is our reality so far. We trust our experience. Try to rise above the fear and bribery narrative of other travellers. Rely on what we know and what we have experienced. Trust the people about us and the process as we go. But still the fear factor is there. Omnipotent and ever present. It colours one’s road ahead and even directs us as to where to go and what border to cross and what to avoid.
Perhaps it’s because tourism in west Africa remains an industry in its infancy. Or non-existent in some countries. Tourists are scarce. Facilities to cater for tourists are even scarcer. Perhaps it is this that generates a sense of aloneness and fear amongst the tiny few tourists that are here. That and the foreignness of it all. The visibility of the other. White on black. Without even a common language or experience to connect with. Not surprisingly the pale identity of a overland tourist from the north bonds the travellers together in expat enclaves scattered across the beaches, waterfall sites and mountains of west Africa. Enclaves that regurgitate and repeat the narratives. Enclaves in which overlanders gather to tell their tales of roads and places and officials, and to share their fears and hopes and dreams. Places to call home. A comfort one in the midst of the dark heart of west Africa.
And yet, yet despite the infancy of the tourist industry and the rudimentary services, tourists are still treated like gods. Like someone high up said something like “pale skinned tourists are special and need to be handled with care and respect.” Because everyone does that. Even when the service is poor and the facilities even poorer, still the respect is always there. Nay even more so. I found that the poorer the place the greater the respect and warmth that it imbues towards the foreign tourist. Every house is open, every meal available to be shared. Not surprisingly this hospitality culture of respect and warmth amidst the most rudimentary tourist services, sits uncomfortably next to the inner shadow of fear and uncertainty in the heart of the tourist. Yet again the narrative doesn’t fit the experience. Another African adventure irony.