Ouagadougou – Bobo – Banfora – Bobo

Any Which Way

Leaving is always hard. It’s not that I fear the open road. I don’t fear the unknown. On the contrary. That’s why I travel. That’s why I travel by bike. But no matter how much I know I will love the freedom and the new experiences, leaving what you know (and in this case, have come to enjoy a little too much) is still difficult.

Once I put my foot on the pedal and press down, overcome the friction holding me back, the hardest part it over. After that, so long as I keep my legs in motion, the inertia slowly builds up and the momentum keeps me going. It is then easier to just keep pedalling.

Well, having broken through the barrier of leaving the OK Inn gates, I made it to only a second roundabout when I encountered a ‘route barre’ sign and had to deviate from the obvious way out of town. It wasn’t the wind this time that was making leaving difficult. It was having to navigate without guidance – which way now?

I went round in circles. Metaphorically speaking. There was nothing circular about my route. Remember studying Brownian motion in science at school? – There I was, a grain floating on water, moving first in one direction, then another, then another. Apparently random movement. But actually being acted upon by external forces. I would cycle down one road until, perhaps, I reached a junction and maybe I would turn right. Then I would be cycling west, the general direction I wanted. I would stop to ask the way and would be pointed in another direction. So that way I would go. But then I’d notice most of the traffic going along another route – was I the only one unsure of where to go? Perhaps I should go with the flow. And so it went on. Random motion. Eventually all these random motions resulted in the net effect of me reaching the outskirts of town. Miraculously (it seemed to me) on the right side of town on the right road.

Once on the road to Bobo-Dioulasso, life got easy. One road, one way. From Ouaga to Bobo. Just pedal. So I did.

A Town Like Any Other

Nearly 100km from Ouaga I entered Sabou. Another one of those nondescript towns whose name I would have forgotten had it not been one of the few on the map and one of the fewer I wrote into my journal. From passing the ‘entering town’ sign, the frequency of roadside stalls increases until there is no space between them. The spread then continues, not just along the road but away from it also. It is then called the market. That’s when you have reached the town centre. Usually there is a space nearby where the buses and taxis congregate, hawkers on the sharp lookout for business. This is the gare routiere. If you continue on the same road, the frequency of the stalls decreases until there are none. Then you have reached the other edge of town. To confirm this you’ll pass the ‘exiting town’ sign. This is simply an ‘entering town’ sign with a thick red line scored through the town’s name.

I only got as far as the town centre. Half-way. Stopping to buy food and refill my water bottles. For water I was directed to a campement. I didn’t leave. Not until the following morning at least. Cheap camping where I could shower and eat and relax was more appealing than the bush.

Going With The Wind

The second day was a good day on the road. The morning flew by, on the road. The afternoon flew by, in a bar. I hit the road once more as the temperature dropped. Life was good. I was feeling strong. I was speeding along. The miles just disappeared and my speed just kept going up. How could it be so easy?

I soon came into the large village of Ouahibou and was surprised to see channels of dust and debris being whipped along the dirt road running parallel to the tarmac I was travelling down. Women were running to houses, clutching skirt with one hand, headscarf with the other. Rubbish swirled around the compounds, sweeped high into the air. It was only then that I realised how strong the wind must be. To me, on the move, I felt nothing. A strange stillness. It was as if I was inside a glass vacuum, protected from the elements. I was free-wheeling effortlessly while the world around me was in disarray.

In this region, the wind is a fore-runner to a storm. Indeed the ominous, dark clouds were gathering behind me. I pulled into a shack-cum-bar and chatted to the pre-teen tender, planning to sit out the storm in this not-very-sturdy-but-at-least-has-a-roof shelter.

I watched trucks pass. I watched trucks stop. The drivers covering the rooftop luggage with plastic sheets before continuing their journey. They too were preparing for the storm.

The air was electric. Alive. People were uneasy. The wind continued unabated but the there was no rain.

I could not sit still. Having complained so bitterly about the harmattan headwinds, why was I now sat motionless when the strongest tailwind was blowing. What’s a little rain anyway? I got back on the bike.

I travelled fast. Fast until dusk. I found a place to pitch the tent. Sheltered by some small trees on the edge of a small depression.

A Storm Like No Other

No sooner was I in the tent than all fury let loose. The wind howled, ripping the tent first one way, then the other. The rain lashed down. Relentless. Having secured the tent as best I could and made sure everything I wanted to stay dry would, I lay down and tried to sleep.

I awoke late in the night as the storm passed overhead. Flashes illuminating my two-man tent world, strobe lighting at a disco. In between, the darkness returned, each time blacker than before. A thunderous crash came from everywhere all at once. Explosive. Striking right to my very core. It then rumbled and grumbled on, shaking my insides. Eventually my heart-rate would slow, the pounding on my chest would subside. But then another almighty flash, and crash and rip and roar. And rain drummed on the tent and pounded the ground, drowning all other sounds.

Later in the night I woke again. Pitch black. The storm had abated and left a gentler rain to fall. I looked out and saw no longer a depression but a small lake. With the accumulated water came frogs. Lots of them. Croaking with the ferocity and persistence of the storm which had finally passed.

I drifted in and out of sleep. Eventually, one time I opened my eyes, I could discern the features of the inside of my tent. It was getting light, slowly. In the damp air I emerged, ate breakfast and packed up. The start of a new day. More pedalling.

I had never experienced so close the full force of a thunderstorm. It was immense. Intense. Electrifying. Simply awesome.

It is the beginning of the rainy season here. There have since been more deluges and electric blue skies. It was just a tropical rainstorm afterall. I never knew it could rain so much in so little time.

Thank you, EU

Tired I may have been – The eyes-sore sleepy-tired from too little sleep kind. But I was feeling strong. It was as if some of the energy from the previous night’s showdown was now stored within me. Coursing through my veins. Muscles twitching in anticipation. Awaiting vigorous release.

It’s not often I feel this fired up.

The wind was still blowing strong too. Blowing the same way I was going.

I pedalled. I travelled fast.

At times like this, it’s hard to believe science alone can create such forces. Me and the world were working together… with a helping hand from the EU. I shall explain.

From Ouahibou a new, extra-smooth asphalt road began. So smooth, I glided along. Heavy-laden bike maybe, but the tyres barely touched the tarmac. Friction-free fun.

‘For your safety and comfort this road has been financed by the EU. 2008’, I was regularly informed on large boards.

For my comfort – yes. For my safety – I’m not so sure. A new road does not improve the roadworthiness of the vehicles travelling along it. It does not make better drivers. It does allow decrepit vehicles with bad drivers to speed ever faster.

Wheezing Donkeys

I made 150km that day. I’d not covered such a daily distance since crossing the Sahara. I made it all the way to Bobo-Dioulasso. It was easy. Except for the last hill into town.

Bottom gear. Slowly slowly.

I passed a stream of carts overloaded with wood. Three donkeys to a cart. The poor beasts laboured loudly. Wheezing. Near exhaustion. Even standing still on the steep hill was too hard. This was the first time on this trip I have seen animals being overworked. Their drivers would beat them forcefully with a large stick once they had ‘rested’ a while. But these donkeys weren’t lazy. They were too little and their load too large.

If the donkeys could reach the top, I certainly could. As I passed the carts I decided I would do so without stopping. Sweating profusely I made it. I did wish that I hadn’t so eagerly bought a bagful of mangoes earlier. The extra weight was telling. And I knew there would be plenty more for sale in Bobo. But it’s hard to pass a bargain.

A Mini-Tour

I rested a day in Bobo. I ate the mangoes I had bought and carried up the hill into town. I slept in my tent under the mango tree in the ‘Casa Africa’ compound. Coals and Newcastle. Mangos and Bobo.

I went shopping – new flip-flops and tops.

A pleasant tour - the road to Sindou
A pleasant tour - the road to Sindou

I wanted to see some of the surrounding area. So I went for a three day tour on the bike, via Banfora and Sindou. This region of southwest Burkina Faso is markedly greener than the landscapes I have traversed the last couple of months. The sandy, arid, dusty, dry, hot, bare sahel of northern Burkina and Mali has been transformed into lush, green, dense, vivid, cool, wet, tropical forest. I wanted to see more. I relished the change.

After three days I returned to Bobo. And from there I cycled another three days to the Ghana border.

There was more rain. But the storms were like a kitten’s purr to the lion’s roar of the storm I camped through on the way to Bobo. The riverbeds no longer dry, now flowed bright mud-orange.

There were calls of ‘Toubab’ and ‘Le blanc’. Changing accents making it sound anything from ‘lair blank’ to ‘ler bloc’. One call even of ‘Blonde a la velo’. That one made me smile.

There were mosquitoes and flies and ants and spiders and caterpillars. Beautiful butterflies and birds of prey.

I loved being on the road, meeting new people. As far as it’s possible to categorise a country, Burkina Faso is a friendly nation. Everywhere I went, friendly people. A country is nothing without the people who live there. I remember places by the people I meet. I will remember good times in Burkina Faso.

Sindou Peaks