Big Trip special: Mines, tanks, landmines - all in a day's riding on the way to South Africa
03 January 2008 01:00
Lee Myers and Mike Lambrianos started up an extreme touring company that goes through some of the roughest terrain known to man. Here they talk to MCN about their inaugural trip and the highs and lows of a four month expedition.
We’d been in the army and seen parts of the world that no one else would’ve imagined existed not to mention think of visiting and we wanted to offer something no one else does. Our trip was from England to South Africa.
Our 10 bikes plus support vehicle travelled through Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Namibia and South Africa.
Everything was calm and sedate in Northern Europe, then we got to Southern Morocco and hit the first bit of off-road riding since our practice weekend. It’s the first part that’s really taxing – it’s where arms and legs start going everywhere. It gets tiring falling off and having to pick the bike up in 40°C heat.
As we were about to cross into Mauritania we were sitting and having a fag break when we heard these motorbikes coming up behind us. They turned out to be two German guys riding through countries just like us.
And after a few days of not seeing anyone you get a bit excited, so the leading biker slowed down to chat and his mate didn’t see him and ploughed into the back of him. There was oil and panniers everywhere, but luckily they weren’t hurt so we patched them up and they went on their way.
Going from Morocco into Mauritania there’s a gap of three miles of no man’s land with just one track due to the hostility that’s still going on between these two countries and on either side the land is littered with land mines and you can see remnants of cars that have strayed off.
It’s also a quick learning curve for the riders: They manage to stay on their bikes when there are mines all around. It’s amazing what a bit of pressure can do.
It’s still quite a problem, as a husband and wife on a different tour didn’t listen and were killed in their Land Rover when they went off the track.
When we got into Mauritania some of our riders just stopped as they couldn’t believe that this was the road we were meant to be on. It took three to four days for people to realise that these were the roads.
On the last day of desert riding there’s an outcrop of rocks which you have to get across in certain time or you’ll get stuck and washed away.
And there’s loads of proof of this. You’ll drive past steering wheels sticking out of the sand.
Turning up in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, after the desert crossing, we chilled out with a few beers and the stories of the crossing started to flow.
Camping in the desert is always great fun as well, with the spiders and scorpions. On several mornings we had grown men running through the desert screaming because there was a scorpion under their tent.
A few riders were worried about going into Nigeria but we don’t stray off into areas that are dangerous. We always speak to locals about where it’s safe to go.
We rode through army road blocks, and they weren’t messing about, with machine guns and rocket launchers thrown over their shoulders, but you couldn’t meet a nicer bunch of people. One of the bikes’ batteries died and the soldiers downed arms and gave him a push to get going again.
In Southern Nigeria we were going through a little village and from out of nowhere a goat came charging towards one of the bikes and headbutted the front wheel, flipping the rider right over the handlebars.
Normally there would be hell to pay but the villagers were more interested in us.
Once we were through Nigeria and into Cameroon we stopped at the Yankari game reserve and natural springs. It was our chance to see elephants, buffalos, hippos and lions, which you can hear roaring as you’re in your tent at night.
We did have to take refuge in a building for a couple of hours as baboons took over our campsite and we hid until they were finished.
Cameroon is where anything that resembles a road stops and it’s basically jungle tracks and logging roads as you ride through the rainforest. These are on the maps as main roads, which they are for Cameroon, but they’re not roads as such.
There are huge potholes because when it rains the trucks get stuck and start to sink, creating a 40ft-long pothole that’s full of water which comes half way up the bike.
Coupled with the wild boar, monkeys and eight-foot lizards getting in the way it can get quite taxing.
Going through the Congo, we stopped at one of the deltas and a local man asked us if we wanted to see a waterfall. He took us through a field and he was sitting on top of the support vehicle directing me as the grass was so high that I couldn’t see anything.
Once we got down to the waterfall it was spectacular and a few of the other villagers came down, including the chief, who could speak a bit of English. He told us that we were probably the first white people ever to see this waterfall.
It’s these mini adventures that you don’t expect that really make the trip. We made camp and washed in the waterfall.
As we got to Pointe Noire, the border town of Congo, they closed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo as there was civil unrest and people getting shot, so they didn’t want any westerners in there.
There’s no other way to get into Angola by land, so we spent the next four days speaking to everyone who might be able to help.
In the end an oilrig supply vessel said they would take us. It was a three day sail until they stopped in the port of Cabinda to pick up supplies and then dropped us at a beach in Soyo in the north of Angola.
They just dropped the bow doors on to the beach and we rode straight off, saving us money on port fees. It was a nice trip which gave us a chance to relax and repair the bikes.
Some of the riders were a bit concerned about Angola due to the war just finishing, and there was evidence of this everywhere: Burnt out tanks and jeeps, still with their guns attached, but as the people have no need for them they just stay there.
The roads are really bad as well and had been heavily mined during the war so they were really potted and there were various parts of supply trucks just strewn across the roads.
So whereas we were doing 200-300 miles a day in a “typical” African country in Angola it dropped to about 80 miles a day, and that’s eight hours of solid riding.
When we eventually got to our first town, N’Zeto, we stayed on the beach at the mouth of an estuary for a couple of days of rest as one of our guys had fallen off and bruised some ribs.
When we went to leave we discovered that there was no fuel anywhere. This town was riddled with bullet holes and people walking around with one leg.
It was awful, people barely had any food or water let alone petrol for our bikes.
We finally found a guy who had two drums of petrol in the back of his house which he was willing to sell to us. So we were back on our way, travelling along roads with mine-clearing trucks at the side of the road, which can make camping very exciting.
We really had to be careful even when we were just going to the toilet.
There’s a wealthy town, due to the diamond mines, called Luanda and after you pass that there’s nothing again and the roads were so terrible we couldn’t do more than 12mph which we had 2000 miles of, making the days very long.
This was the hardest part of the trip with people falling by the wayside and wanting to stop.
They were missing home and getting depressed but everyone else picked each other up and there was a great sense of camaraderie. As we went along one of these roads one of the guys hit a pothole that was so deep it buckled the front and rear rim of his bike and we had to respoke the wheels.
After Angola we got to Namibia, where we started to get back into civilisation. The first thing everyone did was grab an ice cream.
We had campsites with hot and cold running water and went to a game reserve but were told not to leave our tents as cheetahs had been spotted.
And then it was into South Africa which was just like being back in Europe with great roads and people that spoke English.
Lee is currently on another expedition, which you can read about on his blog, which he updates as he goes along, at www.kuduexpeditions.com