Bike Across Africa with the International Bicycle Fund
Modest Rigors Yield Big Rewards
Six of us, all Americans 36-60 years old, signed up for a 2-week self-contained bicycle tour sponsored by International Bicycle Fund/Bicycle Africa through Togo and Benin, West Africa. The tours are ideal for the traveler who appreciates the wonderful rewards gained through the modest rigors of bicycle touring.
We gathered at a small hotel in Lome, the seaside capital city of Togo, and the next morning met at the bus station where our leader skillfully orchestrated the loading of our bikes and gear onto the top of a van. With our collection of local produce and goodies brought from home, we set out.
In the coolish morning temperatures we cycled on the national highway, which had the traffic volume and character of a country road, at our own individual paces. Local people would ride along with us for stretches, curious to find out where we were going.
Cycling Companions on the road in Togo
Photo by Dan Kirby
Each time we stopped at a village pump to fill our water bottles bystanders would offer to pump our water. The hospitality and willingness to help is difficult to describe. Each of us had stories to share at dinner about some act of aid or kindness they had received.
Aside from the people, the appeal of bicycling in West Africa is the landscape and the architecture. In Togo and Benin the rolling hills in the northern half gradually flatten out toward the coast. The drier grassland is dotted with baobab trees; the more verdant areas are forested with palm, mango, citrus, eucalyptus, and teak trees.
On day six we left the main road and cycled along a hard-packed dirt road into Benin. We were intrigued by the Tata Somba architectural style and the lifestyle and religion of the Tembera culture. We stopped at the home of one family who invited us in. Outside the home were various "monuments" honoring the ancestors. On the first level was an area to house sheep and chickens and a separate area for food preparation; a ladder reached to the second level. On the open-air roof was an area for drying grains and in each corner thatched sleeping rooms. We were in an established and perfectly functioning community operating without even a hint of the technology that we are so heavily reliant on. Peoples' physical needs were met; extended families were intact. It was the kind of experience that made me evaluate my notion of poverty and of wealth. That night we slept on foam mattresses on the second level under the light of the full moon.
By day nine we reached Ouidah via Lakossa. The countryside had leveled out and the temperature and humidity were less challenging. More markets were filled with all sorts of fresh produce: pineapples that weighed close to 12 pounds and ready-to-eat mangoes. To me this was heaven. Between the fresh fruit and the best-ever peanuts, I had no use for the nutritional supplements I had brought along.
Ouidah is a port on the Gold Coast of Africa with a long and brutal history of slave trading. We visited the museum, once a Portuguese slave fortress and one of five that once existed in the town. A monument signified the point where the human cargo was loaded onto the ships.
The last two days were flat, fast, coastal rides that carried us back across into Togo ending up in Lome, where, sadly, the trip had to end. In total we had cycled about 450 miles and driven about 300 hundred miles. Each of us took home a different rich set of memories.
For More Info
International Bicycle Fund/Bicycle Africa, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ibike.org/ibike. IBF's destinations include Tunisia, Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, South Africa, Vietnam, South Korea, Ecuador and Guyana.