Suggestion : Print this out in draft form, on scrap paper, and use it for some bedtime, bathroom or weekend reading. Our journals are more like a chapter of a book and this is 9 pages. So relax and enjoy!
Exciting Photos: Just click the link below. Big thanks to Panasonic for the Lumix cameras:
If you would have told me I would be in Niger riding my bike through the poorest country on planet earth just a few months ago, I would say “Heck no! What’s there to see in Niger?. But while I was in Benin I got word from fellow travelers that it was a super place to travel and the 5-country visa I picked up down there allowed for travel into Niger, Togo, Benin, Mali and Burkina Faso for the price of one and Niger was impossible to pass up. I don’t know what it was, but I was drawn to explore and share Niger and now that I’m here I know why. It’s truly one of the most delightful countries I’ve traveled in my entire life.
I spent close to a month in Togo and Benin preparing my visas, bike, equipment, cameras, mics, mounts and spirit for an 11-country filmed expedition to Morocco. I was only half way through my 22-country journey of Africa and I had learned a lot, and am still learning. But with all my lessons, some of them hard ones, I was ready to take the Peace Pedalers project to a new level of professionalism and really go big. So Benin was just the place as it had surf, great new friends like Hugo, Mathius, Paulo and Pauline, and life was good. I’ll report more on Benin down the line…
My fellow housemate and new friend at Chez Hugo Pauline drove me and all my kit to the bus station and there were bodies sprawled all over the ground with passengers from other connecting journeys sleeping under makeshift mosquito nets waiting for the same bus. My massive pile of bike and camera gear must have triggered the corruption mechanism of the bus employees as they came to tell me that I would not be able to bring the bike on the bus. My limited French at the time put me at the mercy of my new Angel Elizabeth who accompanied me to the office as my translator where a few smiles, stickers and bracelets not only got the bike on the bus, but without any charge. Go Angel Elizabeth!
Elizabeth’s mojo worked overtime as we boarded the bus as my beer buzz was fading and I was ready to crash out hard. Turns out that the bus was not very full and I was able to sprawl out on not two, but three seats and slept like a baby until 11AM later that morning! With that big sleep in my favor I was able to happily muscle through the remaining 9 hours to Niamey with all the heat, headaches and bureaucracy so typical in West Africa.
Hugo had lined up another stylin pad for me with a co-worker with the European Commission named Sascha and his girlfriend Judith with the UN who graciously opened their home up to me while in Niamey. Once again, I was living a pretty luxurious life including a pool, cook, huge room and bed and great food. But it was all meant to be as I had tons of work to do before officially pedaling off into Niger.
I confirmed my return home for a much needed visit with family and friends and decided to begin organizing a fundraising party and video screening on November 15th and I had to get the ball rolling on the event before riding off. I spent ten days in Niamey not only lining up and recording great music with two of Niger’s top musicians but also launching a full scale fundraising and sponsorship campaign. I spent a week at Sascha and Judith’s place and a few days at the Grand Hotel on the Niger River. I was working 18 hour days powering out PowerPoint presentations, making phone calls and planning the editing effort of our screening in November. It was hectic!
At the same time I befriended a lovely local woman Layla who is the mother of three lovely children and the wife of one of Niger’s top Tourareg music superstars who was currently in Europe. Turns out that Layla was suffering from Malaria, as was her 2 year old son Akeem. I was happy to have my Coartem still handy and was able to fix them up in a jiffy and possibly save their lives. Good stuff. She went from looking like a wreck to shining like a star in one day. That Coartem really works!
But the day finally came where I was ready to ride and all the balls were rolling in the fundraising arena so I invited one of the musician friends I recorded Koudede to join me on my first day of riding out of town towards the border of Mali. He was as excited as I was to do some riding and to share a bit of himself with me and the world. When I arrived at our mutual friend Layla’s place there was a freshly slaughtered goat being skinned and I was told it was for us. Needless to say, our early morning departure turned out to be a late afternoon departure after all was said and done.
After a huge meal of goat, rice and a mysterious green slop we hit the road at 2PM with an unknown destination north of Niamey. We were warned of major construction on the road outside of Niamey and it was a dusty, dirty one indeed. The worst deviation took us through remote villages on dirty and often sandy roads where we found ourselves pushing the bike uphill through the sand in the hot dessert sun—Ouch! But Koudede was a trouper and hung in there through multiple mechanical issues due to the sandy riding and even a dust storm that almost blew us over.
We finally made it through all the deviations and were able to get a riding interview with Koudede at sunset that I’m sure will be super. Daylight was running out fast and we met a few guys on the road who directed us down a dirt path towards the Niger River where we were hoping to find a village for me to stay that night. We must have taken a wrong turn as we ended up at a golf course! It was not much of a course and appeared to be closed down, but a gentle man name Ali Baba who was the caretaker greeted us with a warm smile and I knew right then that I found my home for the night. Ali agreed to let me pitch my tent under some shelter and Koudede changed out of his riding clothes to get ready for his trip back to the city.
I was sad to say goodbye to my new friend Koudede. He was such a huge help in putting together our small concert and was always so excited and eager to take part in the project. We had built a great friendship and we vowed to keep in touch. You can find his music and a bit about him if you google his name Koudede for Tourareg music. We hugged goodbye as the sun was setting over the Niger River and a cool breeze kept the temperature just right as I set up camp. I knew I had a long day in the saddle the next day so I went to work finding a way to prepare a huge bag of pasta. A young man name Abdul was hanging around so I asked him to cook it up in his village and bring it on over. He went one step further and built a fire right there, brought a mobile kitchen and we ate a yummy meal of all our food combined under the endless stars hacking away at my French. I felt safe, welcomed and excited to be exploring this amazing country.
I slept like a baby with Ali Baba right by my side under his mosquito net and as he got up to do his morning prayers to Allah I was breaking down camp ready for a long 80KM day in the saddle to catch up with my schedule. I bid farewell to my new friend Ali and was pedaling off through adorable villages as the sun was rising over the horizon. There were few clouds that day so I knew it was going to be a cooker. I pedaled hard in the cool morning light with amazing views of dessert plateaus, unique trees and typical Djerma villages with stunning mud houses. My first potential guest rider was a Tourareg man working on his farm and he was so sad to turn down the offer to ride but told me he had to work his land for his family. It was slim picking for guest riders that morning, but I was able to get about 40KM clicked off while rockin to the some great tunes on the Ipod.
Just as the sun started to bake and the thermometer hit 100 at 10AM I felt my legs already getting tired and I knew it was time to step up my efforts for some pedal power. I rode into the small town of Karma and decided that I would find someone there as I figured my personal Karma banks were plenty full. I just knew my next rider was in that town. I rolled into town with cameras rockin and a huge optimistic smile. The first guy I met was a chap named Moussa who is just 18 but has his own business selling cold water, ginger tea and juice on the side of the road. He told me he loves to ride and ensured me that he would add tons of pedal power if I invited him instead of the chubby other chap who was trying to mount the bike saying “On Va”—“We Go”. I liked the genuine nature of Moussa so I kitted him up head to toe with Assos riding clothes and off we went. I knew Karma was the town!
Moussa did speak some French but it was pretty had to understand, but I did get that he loved Rap music so I shuffled all I had through my speakers and we were soon flying along through the 100+ degree heat at 25KM/hour listening to Snoop Doggy Dog and other artists I don’t even really know. By the time we hit the 55km mark I was baking hot and exhausted. We took some refuge in the shade under a tree next to an elderly man making tea and I tossed some dehydration salts into my water bladder as cramps were starting to set in. I was a bit out of shape from 1.5 months out of the saddle and was feeling it big time!
Moussa assured me that we only had about 10km to go until the town of Bonfara where we would be able to find some food and take a break. On the way Moussa shared a bit of his life as the young father of one son struggling to survive in the world’s poorest country. He said there are days that go by that nobody buys any water and he loses money on ice. But somehow he gets by, like most of the people I met in Niger do. We made it to Bonfara, a very desolate and poor village on the Niger River at about 1PM and I offered to buy him lunch before he went back to Karma.
There was fresh fish swarming with flies waiting to be fried under a tree by a chubby Djerma woman. Moussa went into town to fetch water but came back with not only water but a used plastic bottle filled with wine, which turned out to be pretty darn good considering where we were. We sat in the shade surrounded by dozens of curious villagers. None of them looked like the images you see on the media of sad, crying, swollen stomachs, etc. I expected to see this with my own eyes considering I was indeed in the world’s “poorest country” according to the UN. Yes, the people were barefoot and most in rags but no, they were not suffering. All I heard as I sat under the tree waiting for the fish to fry was laughter, singing, giggling and chatting. Every time I looked around from my bench I saw people smiling, dancing and bouncing around playing.
The fish was outstanding, the wine went down great, and Moussa was able to find us coffee and sweet yogurt for dessert. There was no doubt that the people there do not get to eat fish very often when we left our scraps aside a dozen kids dove on the plate and devoured every morsel. Just before we left town I asked to speak with the village chief to set them up with some Malaria meds. Turns out that he was with a small 3 year old child suffering from Malaria right then and there. He had a horrible fever and an ugly frown. We set her up on the medication right there, some bread and a Peace Pedalers bracelet to turn that frown upside down in a jiffy. The chief got a dozen additional treatments for the village as it was peak malaria season and he said now was the time he needed them most.
We pedaled off at about 4PM and it was cooling off a tad but it was still about 95 degrees out. We had a huge line of smiling, giggling and cheering villagers waving us off as I ripped out my “Fo Fo” thank you’s in their local language of Djerma. It felt good to make a difference in the village it made me feel strong and grateful; add to that the rich food, water, coffee and wine to the mix and I was ready to pedal another 30km or so. I bid my farewell to Moussa, gave him some cash for the bus and a nice dinner that night, and rocked the road north to an unknown destination for the night.
A tail wind blessed me as I pedaled into the setting sun all the way to the town of Lossa where I used my survival mentor Les Stroud’s method of determining daylight to realize I only had an hour left; that is, I only had one hand between the sun and the horizon. So I got the cameras and mics rolling and was just ready to set off into an unknown journey of finding a place to stay in the cute village. Just as I was ready to pedal off a smiling man on the other side of the road in a huge wicker sun hat greeted me in French, then in English. I told him I was looking to spend the night in Lassa and his eyes lit up and he immediately invited me to stay at his house and we were soon pedaling into the sunset into the village chatting away in English!
His name was Allasan, or Hassan, and I decided to nick name him Aladan since he came and answered my wish to find a great place to within minutes of declaring it. He led me through this most remarkable village as the sun cast long shadows on the mud and cow dung houses, colorfully dressed woman and kids laughing and snickering in every direction. We pulled into his little alley, passed half dozen cows, heaps of chickens, a few goats and bingo, we were home. A huge cheer erupted from the neighbors as we parked the massive tandem on the mud wall and rested in the shade with cool water while meeting his friends and family.
His house was too cool, just like you would see in those National Geographic magazines. All the kids came out and we snapped a few winner pics in the last bits of daylight. His wife brought out two variations of maize porridge with two different sauces made from two families. It was divine eating under the rising moon and first stars, hearing the call to prayers from the nearby mosque scream while animals and kids provided a unique dinner music. After filling our bellies full of delicious food he set me up with a bucket shower in the moonlight and was eager to “take me out on the town” as he put it. Turns out there was a wedding party going on and I spent an hour dancing with the kids and playing cards with the adults before finally heading to his house to sleep. An epic village experience indeed!
It was a full on campout at Hassan’s place indeed. I had my Sierra Designs tent out front, he had his mattress and mosquito net out next to me and several of his neighbors did the same. It was pretty hot that night but Hassan brought me a bucket of water with a huge ice cube in it so I just dunked my sarong in there and used it as a blanket and quickly drifted to bed and slept like a baby until about 3AM when it started raining hard. I simply put my rain fly on but Hassan and his neighbors had to move their sleeping attire inside. All the movement woke up every rooster in the village so it was tough getting back to sleep that night.
The rain kept pounding the tent until 9:30AM, well past my intended 6AM wakeup. I had hoped to make that day sort of a “rest day” as it was only 45km to the next town of Tilibery. I finally exited the tent when the rain let up and I confirmed with Hassan if he was still game for riding with me that day to Tilibery. He was ready alright, and suggested we fuel up on some rice from his neighbor. Unfortunately the rice fell through but we managed to find some bread and coffee at a local shop and sat with the locals in the scattered sunshine as the heat and humidity began to show its strength. I was amazed how cheerful and happy everyone was-- laughing, joking, poking fun at each other as they started their day.
We knew we had to get a move on before it got way too hot but we had to wait for the tent to dry some and I wanted to do some filming as well. By the time we finally got on the road it was 11AM and well into the 100’s. The previous 75km day had taken a lot out of me and the third day in a row of mid day riding took at lot out of me. We had some great conversations about his life, how he learned his English in Nigeria trying to make some extra money for his family but his employer skipped town without paying him. He, like many of my African guests, mentioned that he was “suffering”. I asked him what suffering meant to him and he said it was always having to eat the same thing every day and not having many options. We had a long chat about the suffering going on in the western world including depressions, loneliness and stress leading to drug and alcohol addiction on a massive scale. He was stunned to hear the amount of suffering going on in a place that “had everything”.
The first 20km of our ride were fine, but the last 20km I had to admit I was the one suffering. For one, we did not eat more than a few chunks of bread at 10:30AM and our dinner the night before certainly was not full of much nutrition or power. Between 3 days of riding, the heat, poor fuel and little rest I was getting grumpy. We were stopped by the police about 5km before entering Tilibery and I exploded when asked for my passport, which was buried deep in one many Ortlieb dry bags. The guy just wanted a bribe or to gawk at my stamps and I was in no mood for that in the 100+ degree heat. Somehow my angels were with me and the guy let us go without causing any problem.
We finally arrived in Tilebery at about 3:30PM and the 45km ride felt like 100. After a few cold sodas, the air con of the only hotel in town and some food my grumpiness faded but so did my ability to stay awake. But it was not just me! Both Hassan and I literally passed out cold for an hour after our meal totally exhausted. Hassan was sad to say goodbye as I invited him to stay the night and build continue our great conversations but he has commitments and I finally sent him on his way home at sunset after a huge hug and I went back to bed immediately upon return to my chilly hotel room.
I had planned to ride the next day about 60KM to the next town of Famila but did not wake up until 10AM! I had tons of battery charging and footage offload I was supposed to do so my day of riding would have to be postponed. I decided I needed a rest so took the day to chill out and relax. It was just what the doctor ordered. By 3PM I was rested and fully prepared for a few more days of riding to Ayoyorou. My plan was to take some transport to the town of Familia that night, find a cool village to stay in and someone to ride with me to Ayoyorou. But there is so little transport going north at that hour that I ended up waiting 3 hours for people to fill up the bush taxi, which threw off my new plan of arriving in Familia before dark. That’s life in Africa!
I finally bought a few of the last empty seats to get us moving and off we went. The sun was setting fast and I knew there was no way we would make it to Famila so I just allowed the angles above to set my course. We stopped to drop someone off in this truly adorable Tourareg village called Bonfeba, not even on the map, just after the sun had gone down. I know this was the last village I could stop in to ask for a place to crash before it was totally pitch black so I decided to hope off 25KM before Familia. The drivers were amazed when they discovered that I knew nobody in the village and had no clue where I was going to stay, but I knew this was where I was meant to stay!
As I dumped off my huge load of bike, trailer and panniers on the dirt road I was soon surrounded by dozens of villagers and I recruited one of them to ride with me to the chief’s house as the last bit of daylight created silhouettes of the curved branch houses and mud huts that dotted the landscape. Freshly built fires were ready for cooking, workers came in from the fields and Jamie and 12 year old Allou rode by the houses waving and laughing our way to the chief’s place. It was classic. I pushed my ride into the front door of huge compound where a dozen bodies crowded around a blarring television on a Saturday night in this tiny village. I was greeted by a handicapped man with one bum leg named Brahim, short for Abraham. He is the son of the chief and gave me the okay to set up my tent on his behalf.
About half way into to setting up the tent the chief came to greet me, Saleu Duema. He was extremely excited to have me and asked me if I like “village food”. I told him I eat just about anything and he quickly barked some orders out in the local Djerma language to get some food prepared for me. He said he had a special surprise for dessert, assuming I liked milk. I love milk, so I was all fired up to see what the surprise was.
My surprise dessert finally came and it was divine! Fresh, frothy milk from their cows heated up and sweetened with tons of sugar under the stars! After the huge meal and the milk I was ready for bed, but the blaring television and heat would be a challenge. I did my best to battle the two elements with earplugs and a wet sarong as my blanket, but it still took a while to finally doze off.
The next morning I was up before sunrise getting ready for the days ride and could have pedaled off without saying goodbye but decided to wait until Brahim woke up. With Brahim’s bum leg he was not a likely candidate for a guest rider that day, and Saleu was busy being the chief that day. Just as we were saying our goodbyes a shy young man was peeking his head through the gate and I had a feeling he was keen for a pedal. His name was Mohamed Idrisa and he spoke no English and only a speck of French so Brahim translated my invitation to him. As expected, his eyes lit up and a huge smile gleamed fro his dark black face. Mohamed was in.
The morning light was perfect for some filming so I could not resist getting some classic shots on the way out even though it would mean more pedaling time in the hot sun. We stopped by his amazing little house and his chubby mom came out to meet me and gave me a big smile as she proudly pointed to her son and herself. We were escorted out of Bonfeba by a couple dozen cheering kids as we passed donkey carts, farmers and Tourareg folks heading to the road to catch a lift to the Ayoyorou market. It knew it was going to be an epic day.
Mohamed only spoke a few licks of French but I did get out of him his favorite music genre which was, once again, rap. This time I did not shuffle the genre but rather went right for Jurassic 5 as I can tolerate them much more than Snoop Doggy Dog. He was lovin the tunes and we were soon flying along at 25km/hour with a gentle tail wind as the morning sun cast a beautiful tone to the red sands and unique dessert vegetation. We did not speak much, but a connection was building that can only be explained by experiencing tandem riding with a stranger. At our 20km rest we snapped a few photos and relaxed in the shade just smiling at each other and saying, “tre bien”—very good. It was good, very good.
The sun started heating up the day big time by 10AM and we hit a cute village between Bonfeba and Ayoyorou to stop for some water at the 40km mark. I only had about 20km to go to reach Ayoyorou and I wanted to pick up some characters heading to the market so I bid farewell to Mohamed and sent him back with some gifts for his family and he was all stoked and full of adrenaline from the fast ride. I also gave some malaria meds to the chief’s main man in the small village who was extremely grateful and also mentioned that several people had been suffering and many had died last malaria season.
I pedaled off towards Ayoyorou feeling excited and strong. I was making voice recordings for my loved ones on my voice recorder when I saw a group of elaborately dressed Tourareg men waiting for transport with their goats, bags of mystery goods, big knives and even bigger smiles. We were just 15km from the market then and I knew folks would start popping up about then. There were four of them in total and just one seat on the tandem, so after some jolly introductions and chats I was blessed with the company of one Sambo Gali who turned out to be one of my favorite guest riders of all time!
Sambo just hopped right on, no questions asked, smiling ear to ear while the others were contemplating the invitation. He had the full on Tourareg outfit with the intricate long robe, colorful head dress and other gizmos. He was content to ride without fancy dancy riding clothes as it was a short stint to town and there was also no place to change anyhow. Sambo was on his way to the market to do some selling of his goats and he said his friends would make sure they got there and he did not want to turn down the chance to ride. He spoke clear French and I was able to understand that he has two wives and three kids! Interesting chap!
The final kilometers to Ayoyorou were hotter than ever but I knew a cold river and beer were waiting for me so I pedaled hard as we passed dozens of colorful characters heading to the famous market. Sambo waved to his friends, giggling like a kid and it was totally contagous. I forgot how hot it was soon enough and the last hour of riding in Niger was unforgettable.
Entering the town of Ayoyorou as the market was in full swing was also breathtaking. I did some great filming for the show but forgot to take any photos so you’ll have to wait for the show to get a real flavor of just how amazing this Sunday market it. Dozens of different tribes and ethnic groups came to sell, buy and see and be seen. Every color of the rainbow was there in the dress, jewelry, makeup and even the animals were done up! Dozens of kids chased us to the river where I checked into the only hotel in town and got my cold swim in the Niger River and refreshing brew. Life was good!
I went out that evening to do some shooting around the market and explore the stunning scenery. Folks came all the way from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria to trade salts of camels, livestock, produce and more. The greatest thing is that there was not a tourist in sight! This was the real thing—nobody cared about tourist, had things to sell tourists or anything. I highly recommend this place for a wicked market experienced indeed.
I had hoped to ride to the border of Mali as I heard the road was fixed up but that evening I was told that it was a no go and it was 95% diversions on the sand and dirt. Everyone I spoke with hightly suggested taking transport all the way to Gao as there was nothing in between and mean riding. I found what appeared to be an old yet strong diesel Land Rover heading off the next morning so I booked a front seat and was ready to rock onward to Gao the next morning, so I thought.
It was all smooth getting the bike on the bike, strapped to the side of the Land Rover and gear on the roof, so we were off to a good start. But just as we left town the driver went to stop at a gas station to fuel up and ran right into the wall! There were no brakes! I tested the pedals, this sucker had nearly no brakes unless you pumped the pedal about 10 times. I nearly got off and demanded my money back but everyone assured me this was normal and it was 100% flat and empty so I trusted them and we carried on.
I could write 10 pages about the horror of that 38 hour journey but I’ll sum it up in one paragraph. Two flat tires in the mid day sun, then a broken gear shaft that took 4 hours to solve, then a battery that died when the lights came on for the midnight run to Gao. I ended up pulling out my camera lights to be able to see the road and keep the car running! It only lasted a while as soon enough the car died fully and I camped out on the side of the road with loud Tourareg music cranking from my fellow travelers all night. Then the driver does not buy enough gas and we get stuck, again, in the midday sun. Finally, he drops us off 75km from Gao and transfers us to a bus that does not leave for 5 hours. Somehow I kept my cool, but entered into Mali exhausted and frustrated. More on the rest of the journey in Mali when I finish up!
Overall folks, Niger rocks! It’s very peaceful, quiet, beautiful and rich in culture and history. The people are amongst the most friendly, modest, cheerful and open I’ve ever met. Tourism is almost non existent so you really get a genuine taste of the place. And, as it relates to being the “poorest country on earth”, I have to say they are some of the richest people I’ve met with big extended families, amazing community support from their neighbors and simple contentment that comes from living on the land with what you have. They may be poor, but I see more suffering in the west than I did in Niger, without a doubt in my mind.
Over and out from Mali! On the road tomorrow towards Burkina Faso!
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