Adventure motorcyclist Spencer Conway took on the biggest challenge of his life – to be the first motorcyclist to circumnavigate Africa. Many of you may have heard of Spencer already as more than a few newspapers and bike mags have been covering him, and he has written articles in Adventure Bike Rider (ABR) and others.
Adventure Travel, Adventure Motorcycles and Adventure Tours are all common terms these days in the motorcycle community. To me a Motorcycle Adventure is a massively broad term which can incorporate anything from riding to Rome from Scotland on a scooter in mid winter or from Norway to North Africa on a F650GS via Eastern Europe and back via the Atlantic coast 2 days after passing the bike test. I met a young Norse lad on Col de Bonnette on his return leg of that journey who could have written a book himself from some of the stuff he tolled me from that trip. What I describe as an Adventure Motorcycle trip is any ride longer than 3 days that poses a number of new or serious challenges and experiences to the individual rider. So, to put things into context, Spencer Conway’s circumnavigation of Africa comes in at the more Extreme Motorcycle ADV Travel level. Especially if you remember that he’s a school teacher rather than a professional rider and that at one stage of his trip he got his bike shot out from under him when three gunmen opened fire as he rode along an isolated stretch of dirt road on the border between Kenya and Tanzania. He only escaped with his life by the grace whatever deity you choose to believe in. Many would understandably choose to call the game over after something like that rather than continue, but continue he doggedly did.
I’ve recently had the pleasure of having a chat with Spencer about where he is at the moment and I’m happy to report he is sharing his unique adventure with us in the shape of a book and a DVD which will be shown on the 8th of Nov on the Travel Channel. Pitifully few of us will ever have a chance to do something like this, but maybe his story will give some the inspiration to take a plunge like this in some shape or form. At the very least the DVD/Book will make for some good viewing over the dark dank winter and keep your brain from the brink of insanity until we get to role our bikes out again for a proper ride again next Spring.
Travelling on a limited budget, he sleeps rough in his tent or cockroach infested accommodation, eats street food or what’s available and fends for himself negotiating border crossings and local bureaucracy. He endures virtually impassable mud roads in Congo, blinding sand storms in the deserts of Mauritania and navigates huge potholes in Guinea. He crashes numerous times, has all his possessions stolen in Angola and survives a near fatal shooting in Kenya.
He also experiences the majestic beauty, contrasting landscapes, diverse cultures and the welcoming people of this vast continent. This gritty, raw and real travel series filmed predominantly on Spencer’s diary camera, captures his personal and candid footage revealing his fears, tears, elations and the determination of an extreme traveller. With additional footage and a slightly observational narration, this series takes you on Spencer’s spectacular journey – you’ll be amused, shocked and enthralled.
The TV Series and The Book
I’ve also had the chance to read some of Spencer’s upcoming book “African Motorcycle Diaries” and from what I’ve read it’s going to be a cracking good read that gives an extremely gritty insight into the highs and frightening lows of a motorcycle trip on this extreme level. Spencer has also been kind enough to allow me to give you an extract of his upcoming book just to give you a taste of what’s to come. As soon as I get the date for the books release I’ll be sure to let you know and maybe post another chapter from the book.
Angola – The Unknown Border
By Spencer Conway
This was in sharp contrast to what I was going to find in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The area was made famous by the exploits of Henry Morton Stanley to track the source of the Congo River which led to the manic interest of the insane King Leopold of Belgium and subsequently the Scramble for Africa in 1878. From this point onwards DRC probably suffered more than any country in the world. But I still had to get there to see it for myself.
Instead of taking the “traditional” route to Kinshasa through the border of Matadi, I decided to take a gamble and test myself by taking a secondary road through such exotic sounding villages as Maquela de Zombo, Banza Sosso and Ngidinga. My Michelin map (I had no GPS throughout the trip) marked it as a passable road but not in the rainy season. Unfortunately my map was more than six years out of date and would prove to be not such a reliable friend. However it proved to be a remarkable decision, as I was thrown into the centre of a tropical jungle with no cars, bicycles, people, electricity or buildings of any kind and to be honest, no road.
What Michelin called a road turned out to be a track with ruts metres deep, rivers and puddles as high as my waist and bordering the path in a thick wall, the lushest tropical forest I had ever seen. Tarzan would have been proud to hack through it but it was so dense there is no way he would have been able to swing from tree to tree. The sounds of the forest were deafening created by the monkeys, birds and God knows what other creatures lurked in the undergrowth.
It was a punishing ordeal for me and the bike and a test for the most experienced rider. I fell often, getting caught up in the dense undergrowth or slipping in the mud, and was drenched to the bone with sweat, my vest glued to my skin, and my bike trousers beginning to chafe and rub in uncomfortable places. This was the hardest ride of my life and I had to change my maxim from border by border, to day by day, to kilometre by kilometre and eventually to a 100m by 100m.
The first day I covered thirty kilometres in eight hours, at times having to hack a path with a machete. This was totally draining as I had to park up the bike and cut through twenty metres of tangled branches, lianas and dead wood that had taken over the route. I then had to retrieve the bike and negotiate the track, paddling with my feet to stop myself from falling over. It must have been thirty degrees, but I had to keep my protective gear on to prevent myself being cut to shreds. I kept slipping and getting snagged on branches until I eventually got the bike through. I then had to repeat the process over and over again. Obviously this was not the thoroughfare my optimistic mind had conjured up when studying, what I now realized, was a seriously out of date map. On the second day I managed fourty kms in nine hours, and on the third I completed a hundred and twenty.
I felt incredibly proud of my achievements as I had to work really hard to gain ground. For the first time I really felt I deserved the rather pretentious title of Adventure Motorcyclist rather than just a tourer. This was compounded by the fact that the border was really just a clearing in the jungle with three dilapidated huts, one of which I assumed to be the official hut, judging by the bent flagpole outside it, sporting a filthy half torn Democratic Republic of Congo flag. I removed my helmet, wiped the sweat and flies off my face and out of my eyes, and approached the customs, reaching into my rucksack for my passport. The official, in a ragged dirty, dark blue uniform with torn lapels, was asleep on a grey plastic school chair. When he woke and saw me, he nearly fell over backwards and his eyes widened in astonishment. I queried, “Is this immigration?” In Pidgin English he asked, “How do you come here, where are your friends? This road is finished. How do you come here?” I pointed back in the direction I had come from and said, “I am travelling alone, from that direction”. He was astonished, stood up, looked me up and down, whistling at the same time, and told me, in French, that no foreigners had been here for four years. He informed me that even the locals don’t use this route. “It is finished, this road bad road, no good.” I felt great. Loved that comment.
I think he may have been a bit out of touch with border procedures, not surprising really, considering the heavy traffic passing through, and he spent a full five minutes studying my passport upside down. When it came to getting an official stamp for my passport that was just wishful thinking on my part. The Border Guard stationed himself behind his desk, and motioned to me to take a seat, pointing to an upturned breeze block with a piece of hardboard balanced on top of it. He made a futile attempt to appear organized, fiddling in the two broken drawers of his desk, and shuffling a few papers around. He eventually pulled out a stamp with a flourish, but it was not to be, as the ink had obviously dried up on the cracked pad many years earlier. I eventually made do with some unintelligible scribblings by the official, but not before half heartedly arguing that I would not be able to get into the next country without a stamp. I realized that it was futile and cut myself short.
I thanked him for his help, gave him some left over corned beef and a handful of chillies. He shook my hand enthusiastically and said, “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Le Blanc, et bon chance, bon journee.” He followed me out to the bike, whistling again when he saw it, and proceeded to look at himself in the rear view mirror, pulling all sorts of, I presume, tough/sexy faces, while holding on to the handlebars. I drank a litre of water, trying not to cough it up through laughter, as I watched his poses. I kitted up, shook the guards hand again, and headed off waving, and laughing to myself inside my helmet. I wondered if he would still be sitting there, in four years time, still on the government payroll, patiently waiting for the next lunatic on a motorbike to pass through. I was in adventurer’s heaven and I sang Bob Marley songs at the top of my voice until my tunelessness started annoying me. After a tough couple of hours riding, where I had to maintain exhausting concentration, I finally emerged from the jungle and reached the junction that freed me from this punishing path, as it miraculously turned into the asphalt road leading to Kinshasa. I felt euphoric.
My mood changed completely as soon as I hit the outskirts of Kinshasa. It was undoubtedly the hottest, dirtiest, most unsafe and least friendly place I have ever had the displeasure of driving in to. As the jungle gave way to sprawling shanty towns, I stopped at a scrappy, one pump petrol station, manned (or womanned, if it bothers you) by a large woman, in a torn Esso uniform which revealed half her grubby bra. I asked directions to the centre of the city but was met with a blank expression, as though I was mad. No wonder, as I subsequently found out, it was going to take me two more grueling, boiling, traffic jammed hours to get into the centre and she had probably never ventured that far in her life.
Kinshasa has an estimated twelve million people and is incredibly poor. The majority of people survive by selling what they can on the streets, like small two hundred gram plastic bags of water. The whole city is covered layers deep in these bags (the inventor of plastic has a lot to answer for). Others mill around holding twenty pairs of sunglasses in each hand in some octopus imitating act, while others carry an exceptional number of baguettes on their heads and are armed with a knife and a tub of margarine.
Jostling for space are the food sellers: chicken in peanut sauce, fish wrapped in palm leaves and caterpillars and crocodile meat (the oysters and caviar of Kinshasa’s culinary scene), or chikwange- the leaf wrapped blocks of fermenting cassava paste that to the uninitiated resembles warm carpet glue. That is being overly polite and even my culturally adapted taste buds struggled to keep chikwangwe down when being watched enthusiastically for a reaction. Then there are the fruit, mobile phone, cigarette and soft drink sellers, again balancing ridiculous numbers of products on their heads. Needless to say all the brands are fake. (Raybon, George Amani etc). Sellers have all sorts of demonstrations to show you how genuine they are; varying from displaying the “original” sunglasses case as proof, to burning the lens with a lighter to show you it is real glass etc etc. Standards do drop though, believe you, me. One particularly enthusiastic salesman tried to sell me a pair of sunglasses with one arm missing. Do I look like Van Gogh? I also had a less than normal thief, halfway inside my rucksack, before I noticed a slight tugging on my shoulder. He had managed to completely open one of the zips on my rucksack and was just about to relieve me of my belongings when something must have got snagged. I turned round to confront him and he just fell into the road and rolled around laughing manically. He had obviously lost a few marbles as he was filthy beyond normal standards and was dribbling. There were three Algerian UN troops standing on a corner, smoking cigarettes and ordering coffee from a street seller standing behind his two wheeled portable stall. They just looked over and shrugged. They had seen it all before and worse, I suppose. I transferred my rucksack from my back and strapped it to my front. That would be the last time I would ever have it on my back.
Adding to the mayhem are the ubiquitous yellow and blue taxis and mini vans, careering around with their sweating human cargo, bouncing along the potholed roads. On every street corner are the Cheges, or street children (named after Che Guevara for some odd reason), who are feral and intimidating; demanding money and calling you “Le Blanc” or worse if you don’t oblige.
Seated on rickety wooden stools dotted around the city street corners are the money changers who are always well fed women (I’m being polite), in bright floral dresses with huge wads of Central African Francs, a thousand of which might buy you a soft drink.
Everywhere there is French and Lingala simultaneously machine gunning out of hundreds of mouths as people try to make their life heard. Among all of this are the occasional fat cats with brand new American 4 by 4’s, immaculate suits, mirror shiny leather shoes, Ray Bans, (the right spelling this time) and mobile phones, scornfully ignoring the masses surrounding their trucks trying to sell their wares. Finally pushing, jostling and dragging themselves around the capital are the disabled and deformed and the cart pushers with their unfeasibly heavy loads, muscular bodies and shaved heads glistening with perspiration.
It was a scene at the port that distressed me the most. I went to check on tickets for the ferry to the capital of Congo, Brazzaville which was visible on the opposite bank of the famous river, when a scene unfolded in front of me straight out of a horror film. The disabled traditionally travel on hand pedaled or foot pedaled tricycles (depending on the nature of their disability) across on the ferry and load up their wheelchairs to snapping point with goods to sell for a meagre profit in Brazzaville. In the past they were allowed to travel free but this privilege has been taken away as they are suspected drug runners.
However, the police refuse to physically touch them or search them as they are believed to have special powers. So the disabled have been forced to run the gauntlet of beatings as they disembark. A man with hideously shriveled legs was dragging himself across as the police beat him about the head with batons. It was so vicious that his eye immediately split, and swelled to the size of a tennis ball. Others had their heads split open with rifle butts while the lucky ones got away with a few whippings from cut off pieces of heavy duty hosepipe wielded by these despicable police. It made me feel nauseous and I could not stay any longer to find out about my ticket. It was too much for me.
More from Spencer soon. Don’t forget the 1st episode will premier on the Travel Channel in the UK on the 8th November 2015 at 7pm.