As part of my Grand Adventures campaign I want to share the adventurous tales of other folk who’ve committed to action and set off in search of something different, challenging and fun. Here Chris Szczerba and Janyis Watson cycle to the Gambia for less than £1000…
“We need to cross the Picos de Europa in northern Spain to ride south to Africa. We take our positions on this new tandem and turn the cranks, wheels pointing southwest. We’ve got a blue sky and a tailwind. We’ve also got hills. Hills and coastline, fresh sea air and excitement. The open road and the freedom to explore. Countries get big when you cross them on a bicycle. What could be a 10 hour train ride becomes a two week adventure. What could be a three course meal in a fancy restaurant becomes a one pot pasta dish cooked up in a bus stop. And what could be a four poster bed becomes a two person tent. The five star hotel traded in for a night sky of five thousand stars. A honeymoon suite for a full moon. And of course a hot shower for a rain shower.
But every trip begins with a cup of tea and a biscuit. It’s probably miserable outside, probably cold, cold enough to snuggle under the warm duvet of a daydream. Add a map to the ingredients and watch as the plan slowly hatches, then grows. Keep feeding it and soon it has wings and ambition of it’s own and there’s no turning back.
Sub-Saharan Africa. The deep stuff. After the desert. The places I’ve wanted to see that I’m too scared to look at. The lonely roads and the baobab trees, the rustling in the grass and the strange sounds in the distance. Animals with big names and even bigger footprints. A jumbled-up, mixed-up list of reasons to visit a place I know nothing about. But that’s probably the reason to go there. To experience somewhere I know nothing about.
So it was decided, on a miserable day in England. The fingers on the map pointed to Africa.
We found a valley road into the Picos mountains following the river through Cangos. As we and the afternoon progressed so did the gradient. And as evening closed in, the jagged teeth of the mountains began gnawing at our calves and the energy dripped out of our legs. Pedalling gets hard when you’re ready to stop and harder still when there’s nowhere to pitch a tent. It’s the hope that drives you round the next bend. And the next. As the climbs get harder, expectations drop. The perfect pitch gives way to a solitary bush for cover. Flat turf is sacrificed for lumpy scrub. And so it was that night, camped a few metres from the road behind a tree, in knee deep grass grown in ruts.
But we slept.
Despite the effort, I’d rather waste my breath climbing a mountain pass than on empty words or the sigh of resignation to a daily routine. If nothing else, it’s better for my view of the world. We reached the 1300-metre pass mid-morning and rolled down the other side onto a plateau 1000 metres above sea level. This was Spain, a nation of hills and mountains, where the plains are runways to the next big climb.
And then the ferry to Tangier. It’s all so different. The call to prayer, the traffic, the barking dogs and this long slice of north Africa called Morocco. Breezeblock towns and tailwinds, the cheapest hotel in town or a gap in the scrub to build a bed, early morning coffee brewed on a red clay table with carrier bag tablecloths. Sounds grim, and it was. But then it wasn’t, also. It was free and easy, life on the open road.
And the desert. You can’t regret riding through the desert. A splendid type of isolation with no thought for colour or texture or form. The desert landscape was designed when nature was still at Art School. Too much yellow and orange. But yet, somehow, still a masterpiece. And, lost in this masterpiece, we found our peace and quiet.
Until southern Mauritania where bristles of green begin to sprout where the Sahara has yet to pluck the landscape. A night camped in a national park near a watering hole where the noises were strange and the mosquitos were vicious felt like the Africa I’d imagined. And then into Senegal, the land of a thousand baobabs where we became known as ‘toubabs’.
We crossed the border into the Gambia two months after we left England. This was it, our destination. It’s a short road from the north to the south of this tiny country where we stayed for six weeks helping out at a bicycle recycling project. 450 bikes taking up space in English sheds were donated to and shipped over by Re-Cycle, then refurbished at the Wonder Years Centre Of Excellence. Bicycles now destined to travel the Gambian highways carrying kids to school, people to work and goods to market.
This trip took up 4 months of our lives, opened our eyes wide, gave us sunsets, beaches, hard climbs and long descents. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking, exciting and mundane. It ignited emotions and fired the imagination. It took less than £1000 out of each of our bank accounts, but in return it gave us quality of life, a value that transcends all currency.”
Here are a few tips from Chris and Janyis if you are planning an adventure like this yourself.
- If you’ve got adventure in your soul, remember that indecision invites inactivity. So make that decision to go. Make the decision and change your perception of day to day responsibilities from burdens to commodities. Commodities that can fund your trip.
- Stay fluid and don’t script your adventure before you leave. The story will write itself. Travel isn’t a textbook, it’s a series of short stories without endings.
- And don’t agonise over gear. Cycle touring isn’t income dependent. Get a strong bike and rack, decent panniers, load them up and leave. You’ll get fit on the road. Ease in gently and the miles will stack up.
- Once out there, living cheap keeps you on the road for longer and self sufficiency is cost effective. Eat local in-season produce. Cook it on your own stove. Filter or treat your own water. It’s cheaper and Africa has enough plastic of it’s own without you adding to the mess. Choose a tent over a hotel and wild camp where it’s an option. Don’t lose your gear, it can be costly to replace. Talk to other travellers, you may find cheap places to stay, or bargain ferry options. Or even a travelling companion. Take sensible spares – cable ties, sewing kit and basic tool kit. They’ll keep your gear and your bike on the road for longer.
- Consider volunteering on projects. Prolong your trip and experience the local culture. Check out HelpX or Workaway for possibilities in Spain or Africa. You should get accommodation and food in return for your time.
- When in Spain, think about riding the Via de la Plata in reverse. It’s part of the Camino de Santiago and gives you a definite route as far as Seville, will provide you with cheap accommodation in albergues and put you in touch with other travellers.
- You probably won’t need detailed maps of Africa. A large scale paper map and compass should suffice.
- Remember you can get your jabs in Spain, some of which may be cheaper than elsewhere. Allow enough time for them to kick in. Keep an eye on overlanders websites such as as Horizons Unlimited for up to date information on visas and border crossings.
- We wish we’d known the difference that a few spokes can make. When our 32 hole rim split, we discovered that African bikes run almost exclusively on 36 spoke wheels. We also learned the importance of treating malaria fast. But the piece of kit that literally saved our lives was the rear view mirror. Don’t travel Africa without one.
- Finally, separate other people’s fears from your own. Africa is different, but that doesn’t make it more dangerous. Just fascinating. Trust your instincts, your sixth sense, settle in and enjoy the ride.
You can read more on Chris and Janyis’ website.
Would you like an adventure like this? All you need to do is save £1000 (here’s how to do that) and get going!
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!