Race to Dakar
Gibraltar, Winter, 2000
Standing atop the famous rock, while waiting expectantly for one of the wild barbary apes to attack an undisciplined Spanish child, I peer south. The Strait of Gibraltar is the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s only 14 km wide so I can clearly see the north African landmass on which sits Tangiers, Morocco. Ooh, so exotic. Sadly, Gibraltar is the final stop on this particular trip, which began in Tunisia and hopped across the Med to Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the South of France, before turning west to follow the coast as far as this remote outpost of Great Britain. How I long to be able to continue into Africa, but this time it is not to be. Home beckons, London and archaeology. Ah well, another time...
Last light over Marrakech
Algeciras, Winter, 2019
As we chug away from Algeciras, the Spanish ferry port next to Gibraltar, I can't help but recall that trip all of nineteen years ago. It really doesn't seem that long ago. Nineteen years? How did that happen? That was the trip after which I vowed never to travel out of season again, but that’s another story. Arriving back in the port of Ushuaia after Antarctica, I flew to Buenes Aries, then Madrid, from where I made my way down via my Dad’s house in Zarra to Algeciras to continue along the path that I’d promised myself on that day. I’ve done this a few times; it may take a while but it always happens in the end. It is winter again, but for an acceptable reason this time – as I venture further around West Africa the weather will be bearable instead of hellish. It's only later that I calculated I'd been on four continents in the space of eight days - never an ambition of mine, more a scheduling necessity.
I write this at the conclusion of the third part of my trip, split into natural sections by circumstance. In a brief hiatus from West Africa, I’m on my way to Uganda on a pre-arranged trip with World Expeditions, a writing gig and another of those long-promised continuations,(14 years this time), but more of that in the next blog. What this means in practical terms is that I had limited time to reach Dakar, Senegal, from where my flight left. Three weeks to be precise for the whole of Morocco and Mauritania, not nearly enough, hence the Race to Dakar, but I’m not here to complain. Uganda is a work trip, walking hard then typing out the words that fall from my head like dandruff, and shuffling them into some kind of order. Typing words usually means income, and this rewinds me several weeks to the title of my last blog post - How the hell did I get here?
I realised after posting that I completely forgot to explore that title as I'd intended; other words fell out of my head and I got side-tracked, so I’ll try again. What the hell am I doing here? Like, how did I get to the point where someone would send me to Antarctica for free, and other people would pay me for writing about it? I mean, what the hell? I had planned to muse on my extreme good fortune in this respect. I am constantly amazed that editors and tour operators continue to provide free holidays and hard cash to write nonsense that amounts to little more than a school essay entitled ‘what I did on my holidays’. Not that it was entirely luck, of course; I made the conscious decision to become a travel writer. I just can't believe it worked!
Kitesurfer, Western Sahara
Have they not yet realised that it’s all a con? Surely, if they take the time to thoroughly read my scribblings they’ll collectively realise that it’s ridiculous to continue to pay me for doing what I love to do and would gladly pay them for the opportunity to do. And when that happens I’ll sigh, think to myself that it was great while it lasted but it was inevitable that reality would catch up to me, and I’ll have a load of cool memories and magazine clippings to look back at later. But so far they keep falling for it. Don't tell them, please!
Anyway, that’s what I was thinking of writing about, but in the last few weeks another subject, but with the same title, has suggested itself. I mean, West Africa - What the hell am I doing here? This isn’t anywhere that anyone would want to come, so why have I? Do I have friends here that I wish to visit? No. Are there particular cultural or natural highlights that are deemed unmissable by all and sundry? No. Is it the cuisine? A resounding no. What then, has brought me to this vast, empty, filthy, somewhat dangerous place, alone, away from my beloved Gerda, while continuing to pay an outrageous Sydney rent? Bloody good question!
Mmm, Nice Cola!
There is only one answer - I haven’t been here before. I want to go pretty much everywhere that I haven’t been before, such is the mindset of the traveller, and West Africa’s number finally came up. The wanderlust made me do it, your honour. I am resigned to the fact that I may not enjoy these few months and I have been aware of this from the first stages of planning. It’ll be a revolving routine of inedible food, all-day bus journeys and poor sleep, and if I don’t fall in with any other travellers, a lonely one, but at least I’ll know West Africa in my heart, the (hopefully) good, the bad and the ugly. And that’s really the most important thing.
I mean, I certainly hope I do enjoy it, of course, but that will be due in large part to the people that I encounter. As you'll no doubt remember from reading my books (!), meeting other travellers plays a huge part in the pleasure of life on the road. Thing is, I haven’t had much luck so far on that side of things. A few random conversations and a couple of days with a Chinese and a Russian, but they both got on my nerves. I’m not overly bothered, as the Uganda interruption means me losing pace with any cool folk I'd met north of Dakar anyway, but when I restart from there in a couple of weeks it’ll be a different matter. Meeting other non-warmduschers is what turns a good destination into a magical one. It’s how I met my wife, after all. I’ll need good company to get through this so I’ll be pouncing on any other nomads like a Marrakesh carpet tout on a gap year student. Pity them.
As for my experiences in Morocco and Mauritania? Well, in brief, I didn’t enjoy Morocco that much but I’d like to come back someday., but on more of a holiday vibe. You know: summer, hire car, hiking etc. I spent too much time in the cities and got sick of the hassle. The countryside is where it’s at. Mauritania though, that was interesting. Mostly desert, but fascinating culture and amazing hospitality, much like the Sudan. Below is a bizarre snapshot of this hard line Islamic Republic, the backstory to which will make a great piece which I’ll hopefully write one day. Look on my Facebook page for the full video. The rest though, you’ll have to find out for yourself, preferably by coming here.
Cruising with my homies in small-town Mauritania, hard line Islamic Republic
(If you haven't worked out by now, my blogs are not about describing where I've been and what I've done. They're supposed to be deeper than that. There are tons of blogs on riding the iron ore train through the desert, or navigating the Marrakech souq. Anyone can write those. These are more personal, and are written as much for me as it is for you.)