Bad news today. My trips to the Mauritanian and Senegalese embassies brought me news that I did not hope to hear, but in truth, that I sort of expected.
Having spent the last two days doing intensive research on the way forward from here, I was aware of several possible threats to my route and today they got confirmed and, if anything, emphasised.
Let me go with order and explain you the development of my original plan and the successive variations and what is the current situation before I tell you what I think I’ll be doing.
When I first envisaged doing the bike ride, the African part of this first stage was designed very simply as the following of the Atlantic coast of the continent from Tangier to Cape Town.
Even then I was aware of some issues in Western Sahara, the disputed territory occupied by Morocco, but always thought those were surmountable problems. However the problems have,over the past twelve months, multiplied leading to not one but nine countries in the region presenting various degrees of risks.
Morocco – Western Sahara
This paradoxically, having been the area I was worried about, is the one where there are little or no problems.
I spoke this morning to a member of the national security in Morocco and he assured me that everywhere in Morocco is safe and in fact the further south you go the safer it becomes as there is more military presence.
This in itself did not impress me as I measure security by the lack of need for army presence rather than its abundance, but on the other hand it was ok until the chap said:
of course it is not advisable to be out of town at night and you should really be staying in hotels to be safe.
Again I have to stress that there are notable precedents of bike travellers that had been scared by the Moroccan authorities and then found nothing else than warm hospitality. After all the UK Foreign Office and, for the matter, the Canadian, Australian and Italian equivalents, all say that it’s just a case of taking normal precautions but, apart from the Mauritanian border there are no major issues.
Which brings us to Mauritania.
All the foreign office use variations on the “don’t go!” or “only go if absolutely inevitable” or “don’t even think about it!”.
The embassy here in Rabat was ready to give me a visa, but they stressed that there had been serious problem in the Nouadhibou area with AQ-M [Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb] activity.
They stressed the necessity of not being out at night or exposed places where either AQ-M operatives or bandits could see a lone cyclist as easy picking for kidnapping.
Looking at the UK FO site:
There are currently around 6 hostages being held in the region, some of whom have been held for over 2 years.
Mauritania is not that long, relatively speaking, so my time there could be short. That said I suspect many other “would be traveler”, be it for terrorism fear, or for the ebola situation further south, might have decided not to go. This puts me at a great disadvantage in the percentage game. In the same way in which you only need to make your house less appealing to a burglar than your neighbours, I would be in a position of not having any neighbours hence becoming pretty appealing.
I elected not to apply today and mull over.
I then went to the Senegalese embassy and checked about the electronic visa. Believe it or not the website came back from server error this morning. There is no problem in getting a visa and there is in fact no real problem in getting to Senegal, apart from crossing Mauritania of course. The problem here is that land border to Mali are open but land border to the Guineas are not.
This requires me to make a little digression and talk about Mali
Mali is a bad place, where bad people live. It’s been like that for more than two years and now, due to the fact that western powers are doing something about it it has become even worse for western people.
The only reason why Mali pops up in the conversation is that it was part of plan A.2
When I left and the Ebola crisis was in the ascendency, I thought, “no problem, when I get to Dakar I’ll just turn right and go to Bamako then down into Ivory Coast and bypass all the ebola countries”.
After all my parents went to Mali and came back with great memories and no bruises.
Then I started reading and it turns out that AQ-M is at it’s most active in northern Mali and it makes the whole country relatively unstable. The UK FO says:
The kidnap threat is not limited to northern Mali as AQ-M has proven capability of travelling long distances to carry out kidnaps, including in neighbouring countries. Criminal gangs have previously carried out kidnapping for terrorist groups in return for financial rewards.
So, back to Senegal. With Mali out of the question plan A.3 was developed: crossing the Senegal Guinea land border and go through the north of Guinea all the way to Ivory Coast, avoiding Mali and also the other two ebola countries.
But this border is closed. Senegal has promised, under duress from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to reopen the sea and air border with the ebola countries but there has been little or no talk about the land border.
I am firmly convinced that the situation with ebola is not as serious as the media tells us.
This is the reason why I was entertaining the thought of going through Guinea regardless of the consular advice.
The problem with this disease is that it is too good for rolling news. People die relatively quickly, they die in great percentages and there have already been movies about it to prove how good of a story it makes.
It is enough to say that more people die in Africa every week of malaria that ever died of ebola in the entire documented history of the disease. And yet it makes the news.
The other issue with ebola is that, while quite lethal it is not very contagious and it is spread more by ignorance than by accident.
The reason for that is only one, I am too expensive.
What I mean by too expensive is that I that I am white and European and therefore I would, probably, in the unlikely event that I caught the disease, command a plane, space suit men at either end of the journey, a whole news cycle and all what comes with the next non African victim.
It’s not fair!
With that level of resources they can probably save hundred more people by both keeping the real problems in the news cycle and not wasting valuable resources to save one individual where there are many in need.
You do remember Mr Spock don’t you?
Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… …or the one.
The other reason why plan A.3 was considered was that Guinea is doing a rather better job than both Liberia and especially Sierra Leone [gold goes to France, silver to the USA and only bronze to the UK] in getting the outbreak under control.
That said the advisory remains the same for all three country, only go if you can be of some use.
I don’t think a bicycle trip to South Africa fits the bill.
Which leaves me in somewhat of a bind.
To summarise, I can cycle Morocco, be sort of ok in Western Sahara, not really go through Mauritania and get to the dead end of Senegal.
At which point my option would just be catch a plane or a boat, but where to?
The obvious answer would be Abidjan in Ivory Coast. Once there I could resume the trip as initially planned going through Ivory Coast Ghana, Togo, Benin (I’d just ignore the report of an outbreak of lassa hemorrhagic fever that the Italian FO is kindly alerting about) and then Nigeria and Cameroon.
Which brings us to the final hurdle that I had always been aware of, but that I had hoped not to have to worry too much about, Boko Haram
Nigeria has been a trouble spot for a very long time. The delta region has been known for bandit kidnapping for years. Largely motivated by financial rewards these kidnappings rarely end up with a funeral, but they are, obviously a severe nuisance.
More recently the north of the country has been claimed by Boko Haram, very much the Nigerian, and sadly now Cameroon, franchise of the Islamic State.
The incidents are becoming more frequents and the geographic area where BH is active is increasing. The green corridor that was always a safe heaven for cyclists is shrinking and the very mobile guerrilla nature of the BH operation makes even relying on a safe corridor problematic.
For this reason, as well as for the ebola crisis that briefly affected Nigeria, the border with Cameroon was completely closed and has now reopen but only by sea and air.
So, getting into Cameroon becomes again a flying or boat operation, how charming!
This however is not problem free, the boat service between Calabar (Nigeria) and Doula (Cameroon), it’s only twice a week and it requires cycling into the Nigeria delta region, remember the nuisance kidnapping thing?
In the end the truth is that the safest way to get past all the problems would be to get on a plane from here, or perhaps Agadir, to Yaounde and then make my way to South Africa from there in a relatively trouble free way.
But this would be a very sad thing to do for a whole lot of reasons.
Leaving aside the fact that I’d be going against the weather, getting to the desert in the summer and to the temperate areas in South Africa in the winter, I would be missing out on nearly one third of the country that I really wanted to see.
Could it be that this is just not the right year to do Africa? It’s not that people had not been warning me, but I continued hoping for the best while having at the back of my mind the awareness that things might have not panned out the way I wanted.
So, What next?
I have been over the past twelve months quite hard especially with my family as I did consider their lack of support for my trip a very egoist response to the situation. I was obviously wrong, as their concern was always undoubtedly my safety, but more than that I have come to realise that continuing in Africa at this time would just be egoism on my part and a complete disregard for the feeling of people that care deeply for me.
For this reason what I will do is to give my family a slightly more worry free Christmas in exchange for some tortellini and zampone, then restart my cycling in the new year somewhere where there are many miles of road to be explored in total safety and warmth.
Plan B will transform my sequential trip in a pick and mix trip which will include a lot more flying than I had initially envisaged (that being an understatement as I envisaged none), but it will have the advantage of getting me to cover, in time, every single mile I wanted to, at the right time and in the right safety conditions.
It’ will be a bit more expensive, but, who cares, you can’t take them with you, can you?
If you’ve made it to this point in the post without going to sleep I’ll tell you a funny thing that happened to me today. While not cycling I tend to eat less or sometime even fast, but today my morale was pretty low and after the Senegalese embassy I walked back to the hotel via the medina where I went in one restaurant to try and drawn my sorrow in fat. The place was pretty basic and I had some generic meat on skewers, chips and spiced cauliflower.
This is itself did not make the event memorable, what did was the nice young lady sitting across at the next table from me laughing while trying to conceal it. I was intrigued and I smiled at her. She asked me my name and I mastered a “Je m’apel Alex”, she smiled and told me I looked just like a musician she really likes, musically I assume. We had a chit chat and before she left I got her to write down the name of the guy so I could look him up.
His name is Marcel Khalife and for good measure I’m adding a YouTube video of him.