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Photo Credits: Hope Wall

Six People, Five Bikes, and an African Panther


By Hope Wall

I have always loved to travel off of the beaten path. But still, people ask me, why go to Africa, and why travel on a bike? I am never sure how to answer, wondering if I should convincingly describe the fascinations of travel by bicycle or if I should concentrate on the wonders of visiting Africa. Or should I resign myself to the possibility that many people choose to experience the world through theme parks, on cruise ships, or as members of an anonymous flock of tourists hurriedly visiting seven capital cities in six nights from the confines of a tour bus and from ‘I could be anywhere’ hotels? Although how to answer remains a struggle, with each new adventure I feel a little better equipped to at least influence people to become more adventurous.

This bike trip to Africa was developed by a small responsible travel/eco-tourism organization in Seattle, Washington, called Bicycle Africa and also by the International Bicycle Fund. The tours, as billed, are ideal for the realist who appreciates the world and the wonderful rewards gained through the modest rigors of bicycle touring. Though the questions can only really be answered through a first-hand experience, I do my best by enthusiastically sharing my experiences and my hopes for future adventures.

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Six Americans, 36 to 60 years old, made this trip. We gathered at a small hotel in Lome, the seaside capital city of Togo where our journey began. This was a two-week self-contained bicycle tour through Togo and Benin in West Africa. At the start, one minor problem kept us from setting off bright and early. One of the bikes had not been forwarded on the flight to Paris, so that when Karen arrived in Africa, she was faced with three options: return home, follow along with the group using local transport, or buy a bike. As we experienced time and time again, there were fairly easy solutions right at our fingertips. We found a street-side bike-mart fairly close to the hotel. An eclectic array of several hundred bikes were lined up on a dusty lot, ranging from no gears up to twenty-one, and pretty much one size to fit everybody. We inspected several bikes closely, and after a test ride chose one equipped with a sturdy rear rack and a reasonably comfortable seat. The transaction required a moderate amount of serious but friendly bartering. Within 45 minutes, with our mission accomplished, we returned to the hotel, with a 33lb 21-speed mountain bike called the African Panther.

An hour later, we cycled 10 miles to find transportation for our 220 mile trip north to Sokode, where our cycling was to begin in earnest. It is an understatement to say that six foreigners with loaded bikes would generate considerable interest when rolling into a bus station. Instantly our group attracted a small crowd of curious onlookers. Amid the flurry of activity, our leader skillfully orchestrated the loading of our bikes and gear on top of the reinforced van roof, with friendly direction from the crowd. After a brief delay, and with a collection of local produce, breads and goodies we crammed into the van and set out.

Togo and Benin are only 6 to 11 degrees north of the equator, so the climate is warm to hot. Facing fairly hot and challenging midday temperatures, to maintain hydration and energy, we planned to start each day shortly after dawn, breakfasting at street-side coffee tables, and setting out in the coolish morning temperatures.

We cycled on the national highway at our own individual paces. Though it was a ‘national highway,’ it had the traffic volume and characteristics of a country road.

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bikecompanion.jpg (18316 bytes)Often local people would bicycle along with us for stretches, curious to find out where we were going. It struck me that a similar situation at home might make feel quite unsettling. While in Africa it felt both comfortable and hospitable. It was a pleasure to have the company. Whenever my muscles shouted, "Give me a rest!" I would just glance at my companion’s bicycle on the same incline and realize that he was riding a single speed bike, had no water bottles, and didn’t even seem to be breaking a sweat, and so I would persevere. Aside from the people, the appeal of traveling and bicycling in West Africa is the landscape, the vegetation, and the architecture. The terrain in Togo and Benin is essentially made up of rolling hills in the northern half, gradually flattening out toward the coast. The vegetation is variable from the drier grassland which are dotted with baobab trees to more lush verdant areas forested with palm, mango, citrus, eucalyptus, and teak trees. At regular intervals from the road, we could see the eclectic architecture of the small villages, some of which is unique to the area. At times we would stop to enjoy the sites or to search for sustenance. Each time we stopped at a village pump to fill our water bottles, bystanders would offer to pump our water. The hospitality and selfless willingness to help is difficult to describe. Our culture tends to monetize such situations but there it wasn’t appropriate, and if anything may have set up an expectation that other travelers would do the same.

Each of us had stories to share at dinner about some form of aid or kindness we had received, the kind of experience that ‘pays it forward’. It seemed no matter how remote we were, if we stopped to make a repair, a passerby would stop and offer to help. This was especially fortunate when the hot pavement eroded a patch of rubber on the African Panther’s rear tire. Or if one of us was behind and needed help, a passing motorist would drive on and notify those ahead.

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Tata Somba Architecture

On day six, we left the main road and cycled along a hard packed dirt road to cross the border into Benin. We were intrigued by the unique Tata Somba architectural style and the lifestyle and religion of the Tembera culture. We stopped at the dwelling of one family who offered to show us their home. Outside the home were various ‘monuments’, honoring their ancestors, a custom from the religion of animism. The size and degree of embellishment of a monument was relative to the importance of the ancestor it symbolized. On the first level of the home was an area to house some sheep and chickens. In a separate room on the same level was an area for both food preparation and the ladder to the second level. The open-air surface was an area used for drying grains, and on each corner of the structure were thatched sleeping rooms. I had been fascinated by these mini-castles in books, but here we were standing in them. No video or magazine can convey the incredible feeling of experiencing it with all five senses.

elder.jpg (11867 bytes)Later, that same day, a very kind elder showed me into the village near his home, where people were busy pounding grains into flour, tending livestock, fetching water while children were playing, so different from the picture the media paints for us. Here was an established and highly functioning community operating without even a hint of the high technology that we are so heavily reliant on. People's needs were met, extended families were intact, and their lifestyle seemed to prove that the complexities we impose on ourselves don’t necessarily make life easier or more fulfilling. It was also the kind of experience that made me evaluate my notion of poverty and wealth and begin to understand the difference between needing and wanting. The lesson in simplicity made the accommodation that night just about perfect. We were housed in a Tata Somba dwelling where we slept on foam mattresses on the outdoor open area on the second level under the light of the full moon.

village.jpg (30800 bytes)More cycling and another motor trip took us to Abomey, the historic capital of the often warlike Dahomey Kingdom. We toured the museum, housed in the partially restored original enclave. Janvier, an English speaking guide, led us through the museum and surrounding structures. He explained the use of and production of the Benin ‘story cloth’ which chronicles the past rulers of the Kingdom. He also spoke of the impact of the European slave traders and also of their own participation in the acquisition of human trade, and the lifestyle of the royalty. Planned discussions reinforced and expanded on what we had learned.

By this time it was day nine of our trip. We cycled onward to Ouidah, via Lakossa. The countryside was leveling out and the temperature and humidity were less challenging. There seemed to be more markets around, filled with all sorts of fresh produce. There were pineapples that weighed close to twelve pounds and ripe ready-to-eat mangoes. To me, this was heaven. Between the fresh fruit and the best ever peanuts, I had no use for the high-energy nutritional supplements I had brought along, and the local foods were a whole lot cheaper.

assistance.jpg (19397 bytes)By this time almost everyone had had some sort of mechanical failure or flat tire. Some people had high end, expensive bikes, while others had real plain no frills kinds of bikes. And the African Panther had functioned as well as any of the other bikes, albeit slower because of its weight.

The next town was Ouidah, a port on the Gold Coast of Africa with a long and brutal history of slave trading. We visited the museum, which was once a Portuguese slave fortress. It was one of five that existed at various times in the town. Among the artifacts were some shackles used to secure the captives. To actually see this first hand made those dark words in our history books come alive and seem even more disturbing. Though humbled by those visions and emotions, little can match the feeling of seeing the monument that had been erected signifying the point of no return where the human cargo was loaded onto the ships.

The last two days were flat, fairly fast coastal rides that carried us back across into Togo ending up in Lome, where sadly the trip had to end. In total we had cycled about 450 miles and driven about three hundred miles. Though the African Panther had performed well and had developed a great deal of sentimental value, it was better and less cumbersome to leave it in Lome. And besides, Karen’s bike turned up at the airport half-way through the trip.

We had seen, experienced and learned so much. Each of us took home a different but unique set of memories, and we are all, no doubt, richer as human beings for having had this experience. And the African Panther is one symbol that comes to mind when I try to answer the question: Why Africa?

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