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Volume 41, Number 2March/April 1990

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Pedaling to Ziguinchor

Written by Claude Etève
Photographed by Xavier Sallett
Additional photographs by Fovea

To many villagers along a line from Algeria's Mediterranean coast south and west to Senegal on the Atlantic, Europeans in motor vehicles mean danger. I wanted to change that perception for the better. That line is the route of the annual Paris-Dakar automobile rally, in which competing cars, trucks and even motorcycles travel at speeds of more than 160 kilometers an hour (100 mph) on narrow country roads and village streets. The participants concentrate on speed, competitiveness and, beyond that, profit, for a victory means large advertising expenditures and increased sales in the following year.

One French car manufacturer entered four cars in 1988, hired four racing drivers, two of them world-famous, and surrounded the entries with seven support vehicles and 62 mechanics. An effort like this can cost as much as $500,000 per car, and little or none of the money is spent in the financially impoverished regions that the rally passes through.

On the contrary, each year the rally takes a considerable toll in local livestock unaccustomed to high-speed vehicles - but the 1988 rally claimed human lives as well: Six race participants and six innocent bystanders were killed during the 22 days of what Time called "one of the most disastrous sporting events ever conducted." Driver Juha Kankkunen took the victory for Porsche, but attempted to avoid the award ceremonies and later said he would be "somewhere else" when the next race was held.

Since there is so much more to the sport of rallying than the havoc and injuries of motor rallies like the Paris-Dakar run, and since I have considerable cycling experience all over Europe, I decided to organize a 6500-kilometer (4000-mile) bicycle excursion tracing the same route from Paris across France, across Algeria, the Sahara and Mali, to Senegal. It would be a rallye de I'amitie, a friendship rally, whose goal would be to show the residents along the route that the arrival of Europeans could be less of a traumatic experience and even a positive one.

I imagined that, for the 64 days that the trip would take, a group of five cyclists could pedal along silently, peacefully and leisurely, perhaps as ambassadors for the United Nations' International Fund for the Development of Physical Education and Sport, known by its French acronym FIDEPS. Traveling with a minimum of expensive and ostentatious support equipment, respecting the limits of time and silence, we might make friends and learn about the people and the regions we traveled through, passing out copies of FIDEPS' "International Charter of Sport for All" on the way.

I solicited help from a number of organizations that might be interested in the project, and I was surprised and delighted at the resounding response. FIDEPS provided us with technical assistance and advice, as well as with copies of their charter in French and Arabic for distribution along the route.

The project dovetailed with the intention of the town of St. Maur des Fosses, a suburb of Paris, to send a pair of four-wheel-drive ambulances to its sister-city of Ziguinchor, in Casamance Province in the southern part of Senegal. The two towns have been "twinned" for 22 years, and there have been various exchanges between them. Now the ambulances could serve our cycle rally as escort and emergency vehicles, carrying supplies and a four-man crew.

When it became obvious, after a year's work, that my dream project actually could become a reality, I had to find experienced long-distance cyclists for the trip. One we found was Jean Nouet, a totally blind telephone operator who had made many long cycle trips; at 51, he was our oldest participant. Monique Collet, his 'eyes,' Richard Tessler and photographer Xavier Sallet rounded out the riding team.

Escorted by the two ambulances, we left the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on September 30, 1988. The Friday-afternoon traffic jams hardly bothered us. I was seeing not the streets of the city flashing past but, in my mind's eye, the whole preparation for the expedition.

We were off at last, pedaling happily on shiny new touring bikes, with MBK mountain bikes in reserve for the sand, and speeding toward more tranquil southern roads. We covered the distance in five days, in high spirits and in good physical shape, arriving in Marseilles late at night, with lights flashing along the Canebiere and the damp heat of the city clinging to our T-shirts. The port seemed to stretch out forever, but we finally spotted the white hull of the Tassilli, the huge ferryboat which was to take us to Oran, Algeria, early the next morning.

When we disembarked in Oran, a second and very different stage of our journey began. We discovered that the sun was our real enemy - at least until, later on, we encountered the wind. We had to get used to the heat, and almost suffocated during the first few kilometers leading up the Beni Chougran mountains. We covered much less distance than usual, and our water consumption rose amazingly.

We rode through magnificent scenery. There were mountains on both sides of the road of every imaginable shade of yellow ochre, red and brown, with perfectly rounded peaks standing out against the stark blue sky. I realized that we had to follow the rhythm of nature in such surroundings; it would be almost a sacrilege to think only of the distance which we could cover in a day.

Our arrival at the village of Youb for the night gave rise to a real celebration. Instantly, the main street was full of cheerful people surrounding us. Everyone competed to offer us tea, to invite us into their houses and to meet their families. It was very difficult, indeed, to decide where to spend the night, since every invitation was so warm and spontaneous. We drank the traditional glasses of tea with our hosts, shared a meal, and chatted late into the night. Hospitality is no empty word in Algeria; it is a sacred duty to entertain travelers and passing strangers, and this tradition, lost among us Europeans, links people more closely together.

After we passed through Saida, the road started to rise, seeming to disappear into the sky. We were coming to the high plateau, a vast expanse of open country, with the mountains of the Saharan Atlas visible in the far distance. The wind whistled in our ears and blew in our faces. Bent over our handlebars, we struggled uphill, panting with the effort, at times in a tight group, sometimes one by one. This was our first encounter with the sirocco, the fierce south wind sweeping the empty plains.

The next day, upon leaving Ain Sefra, the wind got up at the same time we did, and I wondered if we could prevail against it. But we did! We even got used to it. Our efforts became slower and steadier as we geared the bikes down and stopped longer to rest in the villages, and at midday. We continued through Beni Ounif and Bechar, meeting everywhere the same warm welcome and the same broad smiles. The farther south we went, in fact, the more the people seemed to enjoy our passage. When we explained the purpose of our journey we were gently encouraged, and given advice. We discussed cycling, sport in general, and often travel, and the people eagerly read the FIDEPS charter, written in elegant Arabic calligraphy.

When 1 leaned my bike against a rock, and sat down at the top of the mountain pass overlooking Taghit, I was struck with the same awe as in 1984, when I first came this way by automobile. Below lay a verdant oasis, with the square cubes of village houses rising behind it, against the overpowering rampart formed by the pale sand of the Great Western Dunes. Whooping with joy, I plunged down the slope, followed by my companions, to the village of Barbio, next to Taghit, where a friend who had welcomed me like a brother four years before was waiting in his roomy house with rammed-earth walls. We stayed for two days, dividing our time among eating, sleeping and visiting other families, totally captivated by the friendliness of village life. But we had to press on, and so our caravan got under way once again.

We climbed up onto the Tademait Plateau to find the wind still against us. Ahead of us the horizon darkened, and suddenly we found ourselves amid a swarm of locusts. Thousands of them had settled on the road, and thousands more were drifting on the wind. They beat against our bodies and got caught in the spokes of our bicycle wheels, forcing us to slow down before reaching Kerzaz. The next morning we were awakened by the hiss of rain; on the wet road the locusts formed a thick squishy carpet over which we had to ride.

We were pressing on toward Adrar, where the Tanezrouft, often called the most fearsome desert in the world, began. Here the farm road ended, and we would be following a desert trail. But for the moment we were flying along: The wind had at last changed direction, and was at our backs. The kilometers ticked by; we were drunk with speed, and to our surprise the ambulances were left far behind. As night fell we recovered our senses and our support crew. We had covered 200 kilometers (124 miles) in one day!

At last we came to the long-feared start of the desert trail, but the mountain bikes seemed well able to cope with the surface of pebbly sand. We took a day off at Reg-gane, to service our bikes and prepare them for the desert. The Algerian authorities checked our equipment thoroughly to make sure we could cope with the journey ahead. They make sure that no one goes into the Tanezrouft unless they are properly equipped.

The Great Dunes were at first perfectly flat. There was nothing to see except the triangular guide posts and the solar-powered beacons which had been placed every five or 10 kilometers (three to six miles). They mark the 640 kilometers (400 miles) between Reggane and Bordj Moktar on the border with Mali.

We covered 80 kilometers (49 miles) a day. The trucks met us every 20 kilometers (12 miles) to give us water - an absolute necessity to avoid dehydration. We pedaled on, changing our rhythm to the dictates of the desert, avoiding all unnecessary effort in the great heat. We rode for four hours in the morning, and then sheltered from the sun until it started to sink at the end of the day, continuing then for another three hours or so. Only night brought refreshment, as we lay on the warm sand.

In mid-desert, the back axle of one of the ambulances began emitting sinister groans, and was no longer engaging the gears. Repairing it required five hours of back-breaking work, and we would never have managed without the aid of a talented Targui who passed our way. When he left us, our friend from the desert refused all payment, saying only, "If you meet someone in trouble tomorrow, give him a hand in turn."

When we reached the Algerian border post at Bordj Moktar, we calculated that we had covered 2150 kilometers (1336 miles) since leaving Oran. As we crossed into Mali, the trail was no longer as well signposted, and we had to keep a close lookout for the guideposts. The scenery changed too; the first tufts of grass appeared in the dry river valleys. The rock colors became darker, with black and deep-violet schists showing in the gently rising hills. The trail wandered off in a lengthy detour, but we kept to our direction, going up and down, profiting from the spurt of each descent to get at least half way up the next hill. Each rider chose his own path, zig-zagging between the natural obstacles.

Eventually we rejoined the trail. It led us straight to a green oasis, with acacia and balanite trees crowded together in the wide bed of a wadi. All around lay the fertile plain in which camels, sheep, and goats were grazing. The Tuareg were not far off.

As we approached Tessalit, the Mali border post, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of its Algerian counterpart, there rose in front of us a vast mountain range, the Adrar of Iforas. It concealed the village from us until we were almost upon it. On behalf of a French charity we had brought flour and special protein-enriched biscuits for the children of Tessalit. The town's Tuareg inhabitants explained their problems with great dignity, describing how they were trying to maintain their culture and their way of life, and find a compromise between the nomadic and the sedentary life.

For the first time in many years the winter rains had been abundant, and everyone was cheerful. But the run-off had carved gullies in the soil in the Tilemsi valley, and washed away much of the trail we had planned to follow to Gao.

Our solution was to pass through the upper Tilemsi valley, parallel to the main trail. For this we would need a guide with perfect knowledge of the terrain, and we found Assalami. He knew each small hill and every path, and was much respected throughout the valley. We followed narrow camel paths from camp to camp, like the nomads, and at midday and in the evenings the doctor in our support crew was often asked to treat a child, give a painkiller to an old man, or distribute some preventive medicine.

This year, in particular, the grass was high and lush. The pastures were vast; it was a long time since the flocks and herds had had so much to eat. As for us, we fell fast asleep in the evenings as soon as we had eaten dinner. The fatigue of the journey was beginning to tell, and some of us began to suffer from the stomach upsets that are very common here. We did our best to keep to the daily quota of kilometers in spite of the heat, which grew daily more oppressive. We had been off-road for 20 days.

Finally, after a terrible struggle through patches of soft sand, we saw, from the summit of the last dune, the first houses of Gao. The odometer on my bike read 3740 kilometers (2324 miles) -and we were one day ahead of schedule.

The desert ends at Gao, and sub-Saharan Africa begins. The town lies on the northern bank of the Niger River, crowded with people. Many different races rub shoulders here. For us, it meant a return to surfaced roads. Our high-presure tires hummed along, and we often managed speeds of 40 kilometers an hour (25 mph). On the trail, with our mountain bikes, we had averaged 15 kilometers an hour (nine mph).

The savannah through which we now cycled was studded with bushes, and the earth was red: This was the Sahel. This year, the wells were more numerous, and contained more water; great herds of cows with lyre-shaped horns gathered around them under the vigilant eyes of the Peul herdsmen.

That night we stopped at the village of Gossi. The hour was late, but the village children clustered around us, staring at the bikes with huge admiring eyes. They were curious about everything, and asked endless questions about our journey and about France and its snow-covered mountains. Some brought their school notebooks and proudly showed us their work.

Our daily stages became longer, but there was still no question of cycling between noon and 4:00 p.m. Nothing moved in the stifling heat. The stomach bug we were suffering from made progress slow. Finally we reached Mopti on the banks of the Bani River, one of the larger tributaries of the Niger. It is centered on an impressive mosque, with flourishing businesses, government buildings, and houses clustered around it. There is a river port, and the marketplace is full of colorful booths, where craftsmen, peasants, and fishermen come to sell the fruits of their labors.

For us Mopti represented two days of comfortable rest - with a chance to take showers! We explored the town and visited fishing villages on the other side of the Bani in canoes, floating gently down the river in the light of the setting sun.

Cheerfully we took to the road again. Villages and towns succeeded each other en route, and there was a continual flow of people on foot; mainly women carrying heavy loads on their heads, walking for hours to get to the nearest market, or to return to their villages. A little before Tene our expedition was again brought to a standstill by the breakdown of the other ambulance. This time it was the cylinder head gasket, but we towed the vehicle to a nearby village, where we repaired it in the shade of a huge baobab tree.

We were now approaching Bamako, the capital of Mali, after which we would have to cross another long stretch where there were no man-made roads. At Mopti, I had been told torrential autumn rains had washed out the trails beyond Bamako, and was advised strongly to take the train from Bamako to Tambacounda, in Senegal, from where a paved road led to Ziguinchor. There were also bush fires in the region, we were told. We decided not to tempt fate and to take the train: After all, it was our responsibility to deliver the ambulances to Ziguinchor safely.

The train between Bamako and Tambacounda is the only reliable connection between those two cities, and it prevents the total isolation of such towns as Kita and Kayes en route. It was full of women traders, busy buying melons, cola nuts and custard apples for almost nothing at each stop, to be sold later in Senegal. Every corner of the train was crammed with boxes and sacks, but everyone was cheerful and friendly, and in spite of getting very little sleep we thoroughly enjoyed our 24-hour journey.

The train crossed the savannah, which was brightly lit at intervals, all through the night, by huge bush fires sometimes uncomfortably close to the track.

At last we arrived at Tambacounda -ahead of schedule! As our arrival at Ziguinchor was planned for December 4, we decided to take a few days off and visit Medina Gounass, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Tambacounda and not on our direct route. Medina Gounass is a holy city, and its life is organized around the calls to prayer. We were most hospitably received, and the local authorities lent us a large house in which to stay.

The last part of the journey lay along the picturesque road across the southern Senegalese province of Casamance. The road surface, in many places, was crushed shell, and was a pleasure to cycle along. Here began the lush green jungle with huge baobabs and palms on either side of the road, and thousands of multicolored birds in the branches, as well as the occasional monkey.

After a final night in the bush, camping near the village of Anisse, we pushed on to our ultimate destination on the banks of the Casamance river. Ten kilometers (six miles) from Ziguinchor we were met by 20 fellow cyclists from our twin town's cycling club. Le Soleil, Senegal's largest daily newspaper, had announced our arrival, and we were greeted like heroes. Crowds gathered all along the road, clapping and shouting "Vive St. Maur!"

At City Hall, the mayor, the council and all of Ziguinchor's important citizens were awaiting us. We had to struggle through a huge crowd to reach them as drums pounded and everyone sang. Each of us was presented with a bunch of flowers by a little girl, and we in turn presented the mayor with the keys to the two ambulances. We had brought them a long way, and the route had been far from easy - but suddenly it all seemed worthwhile.

Claude Eteve is president of Cyclafrica Sport, an association he founded to assist and promote sports in Africa. His account was translated by Rosalind Mazzawi.

This article appeared on pages 8-12 of the March/April 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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