Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Africa Expedition 2011

On the 4th December 2010 during a freezing cold weekend in the snow-covered peak district 26 young people assembled for a selection weekend. 9 months later, with the team reduced down to 12, we met in Fareham in late July to finish the final preparations before the beginning of our expedition on August 1st

The group at our campsite in Fareham

We arrived in Gosport on the last day of July after our first cycle ride of the expedition from Fareham. We met the 4 skippers who had volunteered to assist us on the crossing as they expertly guided our two hired yachts into harbour. Our yacht’s names Adelaide star and Canberra star were not to our liking so we promptly renamed them Bob and Geoff respectively. Bob was a 10 man yacht that would be home to Dave, Katie, Tom, Dan, Ali, Sam and Troy along with Nick who was sadly only joining us for the sailing as well as their two skippers Nick and Jim. Geoff would house James, Ben, Adam, Will, me and one of James’s friends Tom who would also only be joining us for the sailing. Our two skippers were Clare and James.

The group all aboard Bob (the inferior of the two vessels)

To everyone who told us it was not possible to fit 12 bicycles and 18 people across two boats: yes, you can. After loading the boats on the Sunday evening we had a BBQ on land before sleeping on the boats for our early start on Monday morning.

The wind was better than expected on the Monday morning so we decided to make the most of it and leave early before it died down. Most of us were sailing for the first time but under expert instruction from those who had more experience we quickly made our way out of sight of the English coast. The last we would see of it for 6 weeks! Unfortunately the wind had died down by early afternoon and so we had to start using the engine to assist our speed. Aboard Geoff Adam and James soon found other ways to entertain themselves. By improvising an overboard toilet they were able to avoid the use of the very smelly on board toilet. A series of clips and ties under tension allowed them to lean off the back of Geoff (1 at a time) and do their business.

A little too pleased with his ingenious invention
James - the only sufferer of sea sickness

As we continued heading towards France it started getting colder as night came. We got our sleeping bags up on deck to keep nice and warm as we guided Geoff in to St Vaas at 3am. To wake us up the tune of Songs of Praise resonated through Geoff’s bowels courtesy of Adam’s phone alarm (I knew whose tent I wouldn’t be pitching next to over the coming weeks!). St Vaas was a picturesque fishing village that we had a wander round in the morning before setting off round the French coast to Cherbourg. Strong winds meant we were able to get a bit of competition going between the boats which was good fun. Unfortunately (due to being a smaller boat and not inferior crew) Bob just about beat us in our mini race. As the wind died down we were able to have a quick dip in the sea – it was very cold though!

We spent the night in Cherbourg before setting off in the morning to cycle 130km south in beautiful sunshine to a small town called Jullouville. We soon found our first of many campsites situated in some woods just off the main road. Shortly after finding this campsite Troy had the realisation that he had packed his tent minus tent poles making it about as useful as a condom machine in the Vatican. Many nights shared in James’s tent would have to follow. The next day we woke up to pouring rain which was definitely not what we were expecting! To make matters worse we had an incident in the early afternoon. A mix up between Ben and James left Adam with no room to pass their mini collision resulting in Adam and James kissing the tarmac and a broken front wheel and fork on Adam’s bike. After trying to bodge together a roadside repair it became clear we needed a bike shop so Adam pushed a couple of kilometres up the road to the next town. Here we were able to get a quick fix but would need a more substantial bike shop to get a new wheel from. That evening we decided to camp in some woods again after totalling just 80km for the day. It was the sensible decision though as it set us up nicely to get repairs done in the morning.

Adam not too impressed with his bent wheel

We awoke to rain for the second day running but on a positive note were able to get Adam’s bike fixed by late morning. As we continued south the weather picked up and we were greeted by some much welcomed sun to dry us out! Learning our lessons from the previous night we decided to camp under a bridge to prevent the misery of packing away wet tents and gear into dry pannier bags from what was becoming inevitable rain every night. The bridge we chose crossed over La Loire which was a surprisingly warm river! Most of us had a nice swim and took the chance to wash ourselves and our clothes in the river water. Troy made the error of sleeping outside next to a water source and consequently awoke the next day with his bum covered in mosquito bites. Why he fell asleep with nothing but his bum exposed remains a mystery to me although my only guess would be that he was hoping Alistair may be the last to bed that night*.
*Alistair received lots of ‘gay banter’ throughout the trip and will continue to do so on this blog. She has only herself to blame though for turning up with pink nail varnish on his toes, a purple ear ring, an electric pink sleeping bag liner and his boyfriend to see him off (OK I made the last one up).

Camping under a bridge by La Loire
Packing everything and the kitchen sink was always going to put a strain on Troy’s bike and unfortunately he ended up breaking some spokes due to the amount of weight concentrated on his rear wheel. After dumping unneeded items such as hair conditioner and his poleless tent his bike was able to limp on minus two spokes for a couple of days until we could find a suitable wheel as a replacement. The rain seemed to be fairly constant throughout the first week of France and we had a very testing evening on the first Saturday as we had torrential rain whilst we cooked and ate dinner. Still, our spirits were not dampened and it seemed we had been through the worst of the weather when we had our first rest day exactly a week after setting sail. 

Cycling in the wet

Katie’s sister and her partner joined us for a day of cycling on the Sunday and it was certainly helpful to have them pushing our wind for a bit! As it was Ben’s birthday we decided it would be totally inappropriate if we did not have some celebratory beers at our campsite for the evening. As we had a rest day to follow we were staying in a proper campsite and it was soon clear to see that our social norms had shifted after living a rough lifestyle for just a week! Plied with cider, beer and wine, Troy managed to find himself the target of bullying from a group of young French children (with our help). The photograph below is just one from a series of shots after Troy had his clothes stolen whilst he showered. 

...It was a very cold night

 The following evening we had our first restaurant dinner which included Dan entertaining the local diners with a guitar and singing before we camped by the walls of a fort. We had the novelty of waking up to a sunrise without rain and the view from the fort was incredible. We cycled further south to Royan where we could catch the ferry meaning we could cycle through national parks instead of through Bordeaux. On the way to Royan we saw a photo opportunity too good to miss. There was a giant child on the middle of a roundabout just begging to be photographed with us running from it. The locals approved of our sense of humour as we had lots of approving car horns aimed at us.

Camping by a fort

Interesting round about

The roads through the national parks were totally flat with very few corners. You could see for miles ahead and the now hot weather created many mirages in the tarmac ahead of us. We managed to get Troy a new wheel and really started covering a lot of distance as the flat roads allowed us to keep a high average speed. The day before we planned on climbing the Pyrenees we camped amongst some trees at the side of a large river. The road went across the river over a bridge giving us the opportunity to jump in and cool off!

Jumping off a bridge

The morning of our Pyrenees ascent was mercifully mild as the cloud cover shielded us from the sun. After climbing through the foothills we made it to the Pyrenees climb proper which was marked by the border of France and Spain. Stopping to celebrate we were even able to have some juicy plums from a plum tree on the border! At the start of the day we were pretty much at sea level and for the next 18km we would climb over 1km vertically and up into the clouds. We set off upwards in three separate pods where we would RV at the summit. The effort of cycling a bicycle weighing ~50kg when carrying weight is tough going and the climbing felt relentless. The sounds of panting filled the long silences as conversation became difficult. Sweat was literally dripping onto the handlebars as we had to climb out the saddle to power up steeper sections. It’s funny how the less severe gradients of the climb became rest periods where you could try to recuperate energy despite the fact that if you were to cease pedalling you would very quickly end up in reverse! After a good 2 to 3 hours our efforts felt vindicated as we reached the clouds and the 1,057m summit marker. Once we stopped cycling our sweat soon cooled us when combined with the altitude so we donned our jackets and headed down the other side into Spain. 

Plum picking (it was safe honest)
In the clouds

 The descent from the other side was short lived but we still remained close to 1,000m in altitude which we knew we had to lose somehow before our crossing to Morocco! That evening we camped in a beautiful field in the north of Spain. The daisies, grass, sloping hills and scenery meant all that was missing was donning nun outfits and we would be ready to remake the sound of music.

Resting in the meadow

It soon became clear in Spain that the weather was very different to what we had experienced so far on expedition. It seemed the Pyrenees almost acted as a barrier to the colder front in France and to maintain the Spanish heat. Our first day cycling we decided we needed to siesta at midday and this would become a theme for the rest of our Spanish cycling! The intensity of the heat during midday in Spain was too much for us to cycle in and we were forced to find shade to rest in during the afternoon. We would then cycle on in the evening when it was cooler before finding a suitable spot to camp in. This routine would serve us well and protect us from heat exhaustion.

Cycling in northern Spain

Our first rest day in Spain was due to be had in a small town called Caparroso. We found a lovely camping spot that was by a bridge adorned in climbing holds. This was very welcome to the many climbers in the group who had started displaying withdrawal symptoms. After some drinks at the local Irish bar we went to bed and woke up the next morning planning on cycling some 20km to a campsite where we could pitch our tents and rest for the remainder of the day. On arrival at our ‘campsite’ it soon became apparent the town it should have been in was in decline and the locals told us the campsite had closed down years ago. We made the decision to continue cycling until we could find a suitable location for our rest day. 100km’s later we arrived in a town called Agreda. Our rest day had turned into a full day of cycling and so we agreed we would take our rest day on the following day. It soon became apparent that we had arrived in Agreda on the perfect day! It was the last day of their fiesta and the locals were in high spirits. We were shown somewhere to camp for free which even had showering and toilet facilities! Next we joined the party that was going on in the park where we were given food as well as access to the free bar. It was just what we needed after a not so restful ‘rest day’. As nightfall came the party moved in to the town square where there was live music and an outdoor dance floor. After seeing many drinks away the tune to the full monty was played and it soon became apparent this was not going to end well at a Catholic dominated festival. It didn’t take much encouragement before Adam was up on stage with just one sock preserving his modesty. It took even less encouragement before said sock had been launched into the crowd! The biggest regret is probably that we don’t have photographic evidence but I can assure you it happened. The locals had thought of everything and just as we started getting hungry in the early hours a man came round giving out panini’s to everyone on the dance floor – England can learn a lot from Spanish fiestas!


The next morning we were all grateful of not having to cycle as some of us didn’t get to bed before the sunrise! A chilled day was spent in Agreda and Ali took the opportunity to have his hair cut by Ben. It would probably have looked better if he had just put a bowl on his head and cut around but luckily James was there to sort Ali’s barnet and in all fairness it didn’t look too bad considering. 

Poor Ali

We continued to cycle south through Spain with beautiful sunny weather each day. The roads were hillier than France but it made the scenery slightly more interesting. On one particularly long hill James and I were cycling at the back after stopping for a quick wee. We could see the hill was a good few kilometres long and the others were all ahead of us. A low rumbling noise could be heard from behind us which was slowly getting louder. We both looked back to see a large green combine harvester travelling up the hill and each of us glanced at the other with the same thought crossing our minds. A short burst of energy was all that was required to sprint up to speed and grab hold of the rear end and have ourselves dragged up the hill at a steady 23km/h (I checked my speedo). Troy and Ben were the first we went past and I’m not convinced Ben saw the funny side as he and Troy were waiting halfway up the hill for us and we sped past with a cheeky grin and a wave.

James holding on and me just before I grabbed hold

Our route through Spain took us alongside the course of a large river providing us with some spectacular scenery. The curling road hugged the mountains rising to the side of the river and we came to a large bridge by a beach that we decided to use as a camp spot for the night. The bridge must have been a good 13metres high but this did not deter some of the group from jumping into the water below. Well done to Sam for being the first and also to Ali for managing to climb out the water and all the way back up to the top of the bridge!

Ali nearly at the top of the climb with Sam on his way up

As we continued our journey south we met some very friendly people who really helped us along the way. A group of Catholics in Tarrancon were cycling to see the pope who was visiting Madrid and they offered to let us share a sports hall with them to sleep in which provided us with much needed washing facilities as well as a nice place to sleep for the night. When we cooked our dinners that evening they even supplemented it with the nicer food that they were cooking! We were then offered some of their homemade Italian wine which tasted amazing. This is some compliment for someone who isn’t usually a fan of red wine.

The following evening we had our next rest day in Alcazar de San Juan where a very kind park groundsman fought our cause and managed to convince the police to allow us to camp in the locked park overnight. In return Adam helped him by giving his bike a quick service and he was happy to let us stay for two nights. Upon leaving Alcazar we soon decided as a group that we were making good progress through Spain and that there was a possibility of visiting one of Dan’s friends in Malaga and having a night out there before continuing down the coast towards Morocco. Naturally, our misinformed decision was to detour to Malaga. We decided to push through the 250km distance over two days and so the first day we went for 130km. Unfortunately, shortly after siesta we had our first of what would be many casualties. Will started feeling ill and halfway down a descent mentioned to me he was going to be sick. Before he could stop he was sick to his side covering his rear panniers and handlebars in that days lunch. On catching the other members of our pod up we decided he needed rest and so the two groups camped apart that night as the others were 10km ahead of us by the time we got in contact.

One of our Spanish campspots

The next day was not much better as by the time we caught the others up Dan had been violently sick in the morning. We cycled as a group of 12 to the next town where we decided it was best to cut our losses, stay there, and finish the ride to Malaga over 3 days. Through a stroke of good fortune and the kindness of some of the locals it turned out an English couple were driving to Malaga the next day and they offered to take Dan. Taking Dan’s bike to pieces we split the weight and prepared for the next day.

Dan's bike split across Adam, myself, Tom and James

Unfortunately it soon became apparent that whatever had caused Dan and Will to be sick was the same thing and it was going to affect more than just the two of them. At mid-morning Troy was the next to succumb to the illness as he chucked his guts up over a fence before it was decided that he and James should get public transport to meet us in Malaga. The 9 of us that were left then carried on up a long steep climb before it became apparent that Katie and I were also feeling under the weather. By siesta time it was pretty clear we were both going to be the next casualties so it was decided Dave would take us on the bus to Malaga. Just as we were walking down the road I realised I was going to be sick. What followed was quite a surreal moment as I vomited everything I had inside me it cued Katie who was a few metres away to do exactly the same. The situation was fairly comedic and we both saw the funny side and also felt a lot better for being sick! The last 6 decided that they too should get the next bus after us as there was a real danger of one of them getting ill. It was a good decision as Tom started feeling ill and had to sleep as soon as we were in Malaga and Sam ended up being sick the next day.

Towards Malaga

We stayed with Dan’s friend Diego who was very kind and relaxed about us turning his house into a makeshift hospital for two days. Dan made a beautiful paella on the second evening and we had the chance to stock up on spare bike parts from Decathlon as we knew there would not be many bike shops in Morocco! The following morning we cycled away from Malaga towards Algeciras along the coast. We stopped in Marbella so as to split the journey in two. Spending the afternoon on the beach was relaxing and some locals had set up a slackline between two palm trees that we were able to have a go on. That evening we decided that it would be nice to spend our last night camped by the beach so we chose a luscious green spot just off the promenade. Everyone slept in sleeping bags outside as it was still warm at night and there was no danger of mosquitoes. At about 1am we all awoke to pretty much the same thought process: ‘WHAT IDIOT THINKS IT’S FUNNY TO WAKE ME UP BY POURING WATER ON MY HEAD??’ shortly followed by ‘It was clear skies when we slept how is it suddenly absolutely chucking it down?’. What had actually happened is that we had made the mistake of camping on artificially green grass in Southern Spain and the nightly sprinklers had turned on. Chaos ensued as we all grabbed our kit and got off the ledge onto the promenade as fast as possible. Ben, for some reason I still cannot work out today, got up leaving his kit and jumped straight off onto the path as fast as he could but gashing his foot open in the process! (For which he later earned himself the mallet). After lots of cursing and feeling sorry for ourselves we then slept on the beach for the remainder of the night.

Ben slacklining

Very wet and less than impressed post sprinklers

 The next day we got our wet selves up and cycled the rest of the distance to Algeciras. Here we boarded a ferry across to Tangier med. Unfortunately we had been unsuccessful with getting a permit to kayak across the strait so we had to settle for the ferry. Like the transition from France to Spain, it seemed that in just a short distance it had got noticeably hotter! We cycled to the nearest town from the ferry port where we went about finding somewhere to stay for the night. The whole culture of Morocco is very different to what we were used to but we soon found our feet and realised the best way of getting good accommodation was through renting houses and playing the locals off each other to get the cheapest price. It was probably a bit unsafe to be camping each night in Morocco and there was no need for us to do so as costs were so much lower. The first night we did not do so well as we ended up with a small apartment that had bed bugs but we learnt our lesson and from then on we were more successful.

James on the ferry
Dan after being eaten by bedbugs

In the morning we cycled on to the city of Tangier. The roads to it were hilly but made for some spectacular views across the sea and hills as the sun rose. By the time we had travelled the 40km to Tangier it became apparent that it was too hot for the whole group to continue cycling so we decided to take a siesta and make a plan of action. We then planned to write the day off, find somewhere to sleep and get into a new routine of waking up to leave for 1am so as to avoid cycling in the heat of the day. We found somewhere to sleep that night for free as a local man let us sleep in a spare area of a large building he owned. It seemed like it used to be used as a staff canteen or some sort which was great as we had toilets, sinks as well as tables and chairs all for free. I think he was very happy to be helping people who were English as he kept talking about his ties to London!

The first day cycling at night was probably the hardest as our bodies were yet to adjust to being awake at night. By sunrise we all felt like we were fighting off sleep but it had allowed us to cover 70km before the sun had even risen. It does get quite scary on the downhill sections at night as 40km/h feels a lot faster when you can’t see more than a few metres in front of you! After daylight we took a turning onto a slightly smaller road which proved to have copious amounts of potholes. The going was a lot slower as we had to pick our way through the broken road. We definitely wouldn’t have been able to cycle on this sort of road at night! That night we stayed in a small coastal town in a very nice house that we rented for the equivalent of about £45.00.

Poor road surface

Leaving in the early hours once again we soon discovered that the road we needed to follow was similar in surface to the road we had been on at the end of the previous day. We then made the group decision to carry our bikes up onto the motorway and cycle along the hard shoulder until we could get to a more suitable road. Within minutes of setting off a van pulled us over and told us we weren’t allowed on the motorway. Fortunately for us he volunteered to escort us some 20km down the motorway to the next exit which was exactly where we wanted to be! We then had a very safe ride as the van protected those cycling at the back. Ben got a couple of punctures whilst on the hard shoulder and had to accept a lift with his bike in the van along with Dan who also got a puncture just before the motorway exit. We gave both of them lots of stick for missing out on a few kilometres of cycling!

Ben and Dan with their 'support vehicle'

 Whilst cycling at night we split into 2 pods of 6 to keep our visibility high. I have the following story on good authority as I was not in Ali’s pod that night. After a few hours of cycling in the early hours Ali’s pod decided to stop for the toilet so he could go behind an ‘abandoned’ building to take a poo. Unfortunately for Ali the building was not deserted and a man came outside to see what was going on. So startled by the appearance of this stranger Ali quickly pulled his shorts up to get back to his bike and away from this stranger. In his rush though he soon realised he had managed to poo on his hand and subsequently smear it over his handlebars. I’m sure we would have photographic evidence if it occurred in the day but you can count yourselves lucky you won’t get to see it!

 We spent our first Moroccan rest day in a small coastal town just West of Kenitra. It was nice to be able to afford a hotel and to eat out more often. Staying right on the seafront was also very nice as we could easily get in to cool off. There were even some decent waves which we were body surfing. This inspired Tom & Sam to hire a surfboard for a couple of days and really relax before the final stint to Marrakech.

You may be shocked that Ali is not in this photo

We carried on cycling and covered a good distance to take us to Mohammadia by Casablanca. This was the last coastal town before our route took us inland directly to Marrakech. The day was getting late and for once we were struggling to find somewhere suitable to sleep. As half the group had gone off to look for a hostel a waiter from a nearby café took pity on us and brought us out a plate of food along with coke and a baguette. It was just the act of kindness we needed to boost our spirits and I think what really shows his generosity was the fact we were in a developing country where he was probably scraping a living himself. We did then find a hostel and after a brief 5 hour sleep we left in the early hours towards Marrakech.

Will in the desert

It took us two days to reach Marrakech from Casablanca. As we approached in the morning we could see the expansive city with the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains behind it. It was a truly beautiful view as we descended into the city and we could really feel the top of Toubkal getting closer to us. Unfortunately due to trouble with customs we had to send James, Katie and Tom back to Casablanca to collect our walking boots and bike bags. Over the next two days the rest of the group settled in Marrakech and prepared for the next stage of our expedition. We were staying in the Medina in Marrakech. This is the area enclosed by the ancient city walls right at the heart of Marrakech. It had a very hustle and bustle feel about it with people going about their business down the tiny alleyways and sidestreets. The market in the middle sold all sorts and there were fresh orange juice vendors where you could get a freshly squeezed juice for the equivalent of about 35p.  

Medina square at night

 Unfortunately Ben was ill on the morning we were due to leave for the mountains. Assuming it was going to be a brief illness we left him at the hotel with money so he could catch us in a taxi the next day. The 11 of us then departed deciding we would make it to a small town called Asni for our first night before continuing to the end of the road at Imlil the following day. The road to Asni was a gradual uphill and as we hadn’t left Marrakech until 8am it soon started getting very very hot. Fortunately we were experienced enough by now to take lots of fluids and lots of rest and so we were able to make it to Asni without totally dehydrating ourselves. In Asni we stayed in a local hostel but ate with a local family in the evening. It was really nice to experience a mealtime as a local Moroccan would and the tagine we ate tasted much better than what we had had in restaurants previously. 


The next day we made it to Imlil early in the morning as planned. We found the hotel that we had reserved a room at and went about resting before our climb ahead of us. We decided to take the next day off as well to give Ben a chance to re-join us. It had turned out that he actually had Gastric Enteritis which was a lot worse than we had expected. After convincing him to join us so as to boost his morale he finally agreed and turned up looking worse for wear. Fortunately he was over the worst of his illness and within hours of joining us he transformed from being extremely weak to nearly back to normal.

The road from Asni to Imlil

The next morning we set off on our trek towards the refuge on Toubkal. We all knew in the backs of our minds that our health really was balancing on a knife edge. Dan had been ill the previous night and was weak so had his kit split amongst the group along with Ben’s. Fortunately we were all able to press on and we made our way up into the sky being careful not to gain altitude too quickly. The route to the refuge hugged the side of the mountains that make up the High Atlas range and we got some beautiful views as we followed the valley upwards. We made it to the refuge by early afternoon and thankfully temperature was no longer an issue at this altitude. After a comedic rap battle between Ali and myself we all got to bed to rest ourselves before our early summit attempt the next day.

On our way to the refuge

This time it was Adam’s turn to be ill during the night and we had to make a decision on whether or not to summit. We eventually decided to attempt the summit without resting as we could always make another attempt the following day. Adam and Dan dug in and did exceptionally well to carry on despite illness and we climbed as a group up the steep side of Toubkal towards our ultimate goal. Scrambling up the South Col was great fun and all 12 of us successfully summited at approximately 9:30am. True to his word, Ben walked the last 100metres naked as a forfeit for failing to get all our bicycles sponsored. We were glad the other people at the summit found it as funny as we did! After spending some time taking in the panoramic views from the top of Toubkal we then headed back down all the way to Imlil. On the descent Adam succumbed to exhaustion about an hour from the hotel and ended up fulfilling his dream of becoming a muleteer. For a bit of money we were able to get him safely down the rest of the way and into bed!

Ben making his way up the last 100 metres naked

Adam on his mule

The day after, we rested in Imlil before we would cycle the final descent back into Marrakech. Unfortunately for me I slipped coming out the shower and cracked my head open on the raised marble step. Sadly I didn’t have my bike helmet on and was forced to take a taxi down with Dave to Marrakech where I could get my head stitched up. The rest of the group joined us the following day in Marrakech where we would spend two more days before the end of the expedition. 

Cycled 3000km but injured in the shower.

We had a final meal out courtesy of AME Adventure who really were fantastically helpful to us with all sorts of problems the whole time we were in Morocco. We also had a visit to the SOS Children’s orphanage that we raised money for. Once again a massive thank you to everyone who donated as we raised over £3250! I would also like to thank everyone who has followed this blog and taken the time to read it – it has made doing it worthwhile! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Look out for the video of the expedition which will be completed soon!

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