Journey to the mythical city

This is a diary of my 2007 trip from Southampton down to the mythical city of Timbuktu in Mali. A few weeks of sweating in the madness that is Africa. I’m afraid it’s more effluent than eloquent, but it gives me something to think about during the long hours alone inside my crash helmet. In my opinion, this diary is a little to self conscious. Last time when I went round the world I didn’t know anyone would read it so my mind was free to roam but this time it might be a little different. I think it gets better towards the end anyway, but if it all seems like a long loud fart, just look at the pictures.

Thanks must go to Nick Sanders for providing me with the opportunity for such an adventure. I went round the world with Nick in 2002 and ever since have been doing trips with him acting as guide/dogsbody/shepherd and it’s been a lot of fun.Thanks also to my friend Paul Blezard who is a motorcycling journalist and all round good bloke. He’s a gifted rider who can, in 99% of cases, including mine, get on somebody’s bike and ride it as well if not better than they can instantly. Paul took on some off road training before I left and whatever it taught my brain was probably the most useful thing I needed on this trip.Apologies for the photos…. When you’re leading a group of riders or running late and playing catch-up you have no if any chance to spend time taking shots of the beautiful scenery I saw. Most the shots are ‘grab and go’ so please be gentle! And… one of my cameras got nicked so there are a lot missing. And I know a lot of people travel, far and wide, up hill and down dale. I don’t ever mean to sound condescending so please forgive anything that comes across that way. I’ve left it how I wrote it at the time, and that may be when I was spaced out with no food and having had my life flash before my eyes… for the 10th time that day….Sooooo…. if you have half an hour to spare some time, then take a look.

Day 1, off we go. Breakfast is in the Channel but my bed is in Bilbao tonight.Le Harve is dark and dreary, like nobody wants to turn the lights on because they’re ashamed of the place.Northern France is pretty dull and featureless and dressed all in grey like this morning it just encourages you to get south ASAP. I’m just ‘heading south ASAP’ when ‘flash’, bollocks, speed camera. That’s OK though cos it’s forward facing and I don’t have a front numberplate.Result, so I think. 2 minutes later either some woman in a blue boiler suit wants to alert me to something hanging off the bike or it’s a voiture de la cochon sans curly tail.Unfortunately it’s the latter.Bloke plod and his polly pocket sidekick in their unmarked battered old green Megane estate embarrassmobile. 83 in a 50, 90 Euros, welcome to France. I consider feigning innocence and trying to negotiate with the bloke but as my entire vocabulary in any language consists only of swear words and insults I could only think of ‘Your mother smells like a week old tuna baguette’ or ‘I think your little partner with the unfortunate face harbours small sea creatures in her pants’, neither of which I think would be helpful at this point.I give up, shut up, pay up. At least I get to laugh as they pull away and do a U turn without remembering to take all their stuff off the roof of the car. Shrieking of brakes as a lorry tries to avoid the detritious and plod jumps out to recover the bits.Now if I had done that’.

As I get further south things improve.The sky is thick with a full complement of clean to dirty clouds. Full to empty, black to white. The cloud shadows chase across vast moss green fields lines with perfectly symmetrical trees, all full to overflowing with mistletoe. There must have been a kissing strike in France this Christmas. If only I had a camera. 1wWell if only I had the time to take pictures but I don’t. I’m getting used to a very heavily loaded bike and the roads are wet. Progress is way too slow across country. After dark I get to the Spanish border.It’s starting to drizzle, my least favorite weather.The French motorways have been fast and mostly straight this afternoon but this section is heading into the mountains.On a clear fine day this would be motorcycling Nirvana, today it’s motorcycling hell. Imagine putting 50kg on your back, smearing your eyeballs with Vaseline then turning all the lights off and running as fast as you can across a wiggly tightrope.I’m glad to reach Bilbao though tonight it looks more like BilBowel to me. Find the Formule 1 hotel quickly which is great. For anyone who hasn’t stayed in one they have only the bare necessities but are cheap.They have shares toilets and showers.If you spend too long sitting on the toilet the light goes out and won’t come back on till you open the door.Oh well, I needed to clean my fingernails anyway.

Tonight bed is 650 miles away near Portemeo in Portugal. It’s always a bit disconcerting when you open a big map of two countries and you have to go from the top right to the bottom left. Up and out of Bilbao before dawn.Up into the Pyrenees in the dark.Clear sky and the bloom of sunrise is on the horizon.I’m alone climbing and climbing and climbing.The day gets closer to opening and the giants in the mountains pull back their cloud blankets and stretch as the sun hits their peaks.The wing mirrors are playing movies of small mountain towns bathed in pink mist basking in the first rays of the sunrise. Travelling overland is a special thing indeed. I’d much rather be here than in those planes I can see thousands of feet above.Click. Outstanding.I’ll take thousands of mental photos on a trip like this and they’ll all be better than any I’d take with my camera. Up in the mountains and it’s cold, real nipple tensingly freezing. It is January and this is the top of the Pyrenees. Perhaps I should put something over this TShirt and shorts I’m wearing. 2wFollow the high ground and drift in and out of the mist and clouds. Stop for a coffee at some remote village. Open the cafe door.Feck me, is this place on fire?Open the door and you’re greeted by a wave of smoke like someone has started up a 4 million mile diesel engine inside.I’m guessing that smoking in bars hasn’t been banned here in Portugal yet. I get on all fours and crawl my way through until my head hits the bar. Take a deep breath and stand up.All I can see is someone’s detached hands appearing through the fug. I put an empty coffee cup in one of the hands and a 2 Euro coin in the other. Moments later a full cup of coffee appears out the ether.Magic. I take my life in my hands and head for the lightest area of the room that I presume is the door.As I walk out I can hear laughter, shouting, joking and coughing but I can’t see any people.Out into the light and clean air and take a deep breath.I sit outside and watch the mist drift over the top of the mountain and drift down through the massive hillside orchard like a slow motion wave.Take a few pics and get on my way.A few hours of thick fog later I’m on the last leg towards Portemeo where the Lisbon-Dakar rally is starting tomorrow. 3wBoys and their toys.The autoroute is awash with the most serious of offroad equipment tearing down to Lisbon. These are the biggest of the biggest of boys toys. HUGE 4×4 and 6×6 tricked up trucks tearing up the tarmac. I pass 4×4 land rover clones and you peer inside to see faces glowing red in the banks of lights and screens and ultimate gizmology these things are packed with.I stop at the toll booth and watch some come through.It’s like a scene from ‘Much Much Madder than Max’ as these obscene mutant vehicles roar through.You can’t help but smile and be impressed though.You remember those push along toys with the friction motors you had as a kid.You remember how you pushed them repeatedly as fast as humanly possible until the internals were screaming fit to burst within an inch of their little metal life.Well that’s what these whining wheeled warriors sounded like, only 10 times louder. There are coppers everywhere just watching. People on all the bridges watch and wave at the millions of madly spent Euros hurtle underneath.Quite a spectacle to be sure.I get to the hotel about 7 completely wankered. I don’t think I’ve blinked all day My eyes are bloodshot and have little lumps on them, which is nice.Glad I’m looking my best as I meet the other riders. They’re all daisy fresh having flown here.

Here we go.29 headless chickens. All of us with a bit of a plan.We go to get out the village only to be greeted by a closed road. The Dakar takes precedence over everything else it seems.Take a very long way around. The road is full of nutters going the other way to watch the stage. Some of them look like they think they’re taking part. Maniacs on quads and loons in Suburus come honing round every blind bend. It’s just ridiculous and more than a little butt clenchingly scary. I don’t know how the race works exactly as the motorways are full of the Dakar support trucks which I know compete on some of the event. I suspect these things are only let off the lead where there is plenty of space, not in the confined stages taking place here. 20 tonnes of tumbling truck would make a right mess in these populus areas.14wHUGE 6×6 and 4×4 mobile garages rumble and moan their way east along the concrete. The bridges are all packed with spectators.The motorways are lined by people who have just driven off the sides of the road and parked in the ditches but the police don’t care as they’re parked there too.Can you imagine stopping on the side of the M3 with a picnic and then offering a sandwich to the copper parked next to you. Britain is seriously anal compared to this place. Whenever we stop to fuel up the big trucks are there and attracting much attention.Like pilot fish on sharks, kids young and old clamber all over the machinery, poking, sniffing, jabbering and dribbling.The trucks start their engines, rev up and shake themselves like giant wet sheepdogs sending any stragglers and hangers on flying in all directionsThey’re gone in seconds. Serious serious machines and I want one.Get the ferry over from Algeciras to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta then spend hours and hours getting through the Morrocan border nightmare.This place has had some time and motion consultants in to sort out the procedures but whoever did it was more ‘Arthur Daley’ than ‘Arthur Anderson’.I think I was waiting there for at least 2 hours to get the riders through so when we eventually get moving it’s very late.We get to the hotel about 11pm.The hotel next door is called the Hotel Rif, so I’m guessing we’re in the Hotel Raf. Certainly seems like it.

Six hours sleep.Eyes are open but the brain is tucked up somewhere safe ands warm. Error is flashing on the backs of my eyelids. Surely I can’t be doing this again. When will I ever learn.Down for breakfast but the cupboard is bare and the locusts have already been through. 15wRide out the town and see the cloud sitting in the bowl of the mountains all around. Milky white and shimmering with the sun above it. Down we go through the cloud and into the cold misty mirk below.There are 29 bikers on this trip at the moment and moving a group this big is nearly impossible.One stops and they all stop.It’s like hurding a group of kids and it’s putting my patience to the test. We all manage to get an hour up the road before the group stalls again, drawn by the lure of coffee and bread.I didn’t have any breakfast so decide to get a roll made with a couple of runny eggs in. As I watch my snack being prepared I survey the scene. It’s a dark room with smoke billowing from the 2000 degree heat of an overheated frying pan.4wThere are cubby holes behind the counter. Cups, glasses, cutlery, cat…Cat? Yep, there is a big ginger cat carefully arranging a tongue comb-over on each of his bollocks just where my snack is being assembled. As I look at him he stares back, fixes me with an evil grin then takes a big swipe at his third eye to finish his own personal ‘back, sack and crack’ massage.Having said that, the sandwich was lovely and complemented perfectly by the curry powder that the got sprinkled on it before I could stop the cook dipping her grubby fingers into the pot and putting it on.OK, we have a long way to go and nobody is moving. Before we came out I went on Ebay and bought a job lot of patience for this trip.As much as I could carry in fact.I’m using it up much faster than I thought though at the moment. We eventually get moving and spend the entire day crossing the high Atlas mountains.It’s simply stunning. As the sun is setting we’re crossing the plains with the snow caps glowing red. 48wThe Dakar boys are about again and they appear and disappear between stages traveling on the public roads.The competitors have to stick to the speed limits (supposedly) but all the non-competing support vehicles definitely do not and they’re all on a mission to get to the next bivi point ASAP in order to maximise their usefulness. Tonight one of the Czech riders hits a young girl out on the road, nasty.One of our riders comes off avoiding an ambulance of all things.We’re going through Al-Rachid on the way to our still far off destination tonight. That is where the Dakar bivi is tonight and it’s absolute chaos. The ride into the town down the mountains is complete and utter madness. The rules are simple.BIGGEST FIRST.As mere plankton we get hustled and shoved, pushed and barged, barracked and bullied.All at 80mph in the dark with everything overtaking everything else.The trucks just form into convoys and overtake for miles at a time.Anything coming the other way just has to get off the road.I’ve never seen anything like it.Town is like people soup. The organisation of this event must be mind blowing.It’s 9 O’Clock, freezing cold, in the middle of nowhere. It’s dark, it’s scary on these roads and we’re looking for a campsite somewhere on the edge of the Sahara. Easy. Every town we get to we have to ask the way. We get close to the destination and ask again. We’re told we’ve passed it, great. For 10 Euros a local boy will take us there via a shortcut.’You’re taking the piste’ I think, and I’m not wrong. Tarmac suddenly turns to rough piste and soft sand. Now riding a big heavy bike in these conditions is like getting a piggy back from a fat man on ice skates.The bike is moving around underneath me and my arse is so tense that only a dog could hear me fart. We make it to the camp at 9:30 and pitch tents in the dark.It’s absolutely freezing and we’re knackered. Quick eat and bed by 11.Why the feck am I hear I ask myself as I shiver myself to sleep.–Awoken by the call to prayer before dawn and the dawn chorus of farting from the tents around me.Last night a few of us stupidly agreed to get a camel ride out to the big dunes before sunrise so as we could watch from the top of one.

So up at 6 to meet the camels.They don’t seem pleased to see us.I’ve been listening to them moaning in the night. The Berber has been sat with them all night in the freezing cold. I take a wee against the wall but these walls are made of mud and straw and my wee is like a laser cutter through steel as it cuts a perfect line through to the camels on the other side.When we go to choose our camels I avoid the wet one at the back. Out we go into the dunes.The bloom of the sky is starting to show and the scene is like one from the bible with the stars and moon, the near silent progress of the camels, the outlines of the dunes, and the cacophony of trumping as 10 sleepwalking bikers clear their tubes.We reach the bottom of one particular dune.It’s about 150ft high, smooth, red and majestic. I start to climb up but it’s damm near impossible.Forget you ordinary everyday run of the mill beach sand. This stuff is genuine Sahara ‘caster’ grade sand. The grains are incredibly fine and so it’s almost like trying to walk up a waterfall.Every step makes barely any progress.I thought I was reasonably fit but this is enough to nearly bring on a heart attack.

The view from the top is worth it though. Spectacular.As the sun peaks out and touches the tops of the dunes it’s magical. Unfortunately the Berbers call us down just as the light is getting good. We get all the way down only to find that they want to sell us some cheap rocks and junk jewellery.Now, unfortunately, what is left of my patience is packed on the bike so I just spit the dummy, turn the Berber on his head and ram his rectum full of sand and rocks.Made me feel better anyway and gave him some much needed roughage.Up the road we come across a stage start for the Dakar. We’ve missed the cars and bikes but who cares, THE DADDIES are here. Support trucks are lined up on the piste, pulsing, throbing, trembling, living and breathing. One French driver takes a piss against his truck, maybe to cool the brakes, before climbing up to his steed. Go up to the start line. 28w3…2…1… FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRKING SHIIIIITTTTTTTTTTTTE. These things FLY. You can’t believe your eyes. They launch themselves at an obscene rate of knots across the rough stuff in a huge cloud of dust. Spinning wheels, smoking stacks and screaming diesel motors propel them away and down the start before the drivers drift tonnes of iron and steel into the first of 100’s of unknown bends and bumps.


These men (and women) are absolutely barking mad.One South African rider payed the ultimate price today. It’s a serious business. The group is stopping far far too often and won’t move for anything. I’ve had a look for my patience. I’ve looked everywhere but I think I’ve lost it. ARRHHHHHHHHHHHHH I’ve had enough now and I need to do something radical. It’s going to be expensive but I’m going to have to go to the top. I email PopeBenny@HouseOfFaggots.va for help. I ask him to DHL me out a plane load of ‘Saint’ strength patience ASAP. I think I’m going to need it. Out on the road again we fly over huge plains punctuated by small mountains in the cold afternoon light.We’re running very late again and we arrive after dark. The roads are scary in the day but absolutely treacherous at night. At least there is a nice meal waiting here.

The bed last night was like a butchers slab only harder.Woke up feeling rumbly and promptly opened the bowel sluice gates to create my very own chocolate fountain. Didn’t feel like eating breakfast, or walking, talking or anything at all really.Certainly didn’t feel like riding a bike in the freezing cold for 100’s of miles across the mountain passes but it had to be done. Today served up a diet of motorcyclings finest roads but it was like being presented with your favorite meal when you’ve just been for a ride in a supersonic stunt plane.It was certainly beautiful though. Ended up in a mountain village. Layed down for a nap at 6pm and woke up 7am the next morningFeeling much better today.The bowel door feels nice and airtight and the nose is sniffing out food which is always a good sign. On the road again heading south.Windy? What?Sorry, can’t hear you over this fricking wind. 36wEither some bugger has turned up the earths rotation speed or it’s the morning after the international cabbage eating competition across the plain.It’s blowing a flippin hooly.We make our way across the plains, all at 30 degrees to the vertical. Every time a lorry comes the other way it’s like being punched in the head.The sand is being blown across the road and dances all over the tarmac..We stop at some windswept petrol station in the middle of nowhere. The bloke in the cafe has to be the most boss eyed bloke I’ve ever seen.Each eye is staring at the opposite ear.I hold up two fingers for coffee but get 4 instead.He says 20 Dirams so I put 1 10 down and he’s happy. I try and help him out by hitting him hard round the head with a wheel brace but his eyeballs just spin round like some cartoon character. Every time they settle in some random scuew-if position. I get lucky after about 30 hits ‘jackpot’ both eyes pointing in the same direction.His head looks like a big red golf ball but he’ll thank me later. We manager to get to the destination early and I need to fix my bike.My fuel flap has broken off which is a bit of a bugger if the bike falls over. I head off alone into ‘mechanics central’ part of town where small doors open up into greasy metal strewn rooms with dim bulbs and dirty blokes in overalls.I ask a couple but get no joy.Eventually a well dressed bloke comes up and speaks English ‘thank god. I explain what I want and he ‘has a mate’ who can help me. He jumps on and we ride across town to his mate. I’m always a little nervous of having unknown arab gentlemen directing me down little dark back alleys on the outskirts of unknown towns.I’m having thoughts of robbery or worse but the garage bloke is friendly and makes up a plate in no time for the fuel cap and we go to get some long bolts from another ‘mate’. Job done, about ¬£5 all in including 100% tip. About the same as a UK BMW dealer I think. I also got a free glass of mint tea served from a glass so think with oil and grease that it slipped around my lips like a sucked boiled sweet.Hope that doesn’t come back to haunt me later.The 14 day riders head back to the UK tomorrow and so we’re left with a more manageable group hopefully as we head south for Mauritania.I wish I was going North rather than South. I’ve had enough and my patience still hasn’t arrived yet. I’m missing home but this usually happens around this point and I’ll have to get over it.

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