It’s hot as hell in Bundajuma. Not Costa Blanca hot. Hot like words fail you, thoughts clouding as your brain slows down. Then, jolting awake, the sound of skittering comes from behind. A shriek, then an almighty splash. The wet red earth has given way beneath a tyre, the rider slipping and putting a foot down into the puddle of bright orange, standing rainwater.
We are riding mountain bikes along dirt tracks and construction roads in Sierra Leone as part of the inaugural West Africa Cycle Challenge (WACC). The Challenge is to ride to Robertsport in Liberia from Bo in Sierra Leone, a 300-kilometre (186-mile) trek through some of the region’s most remote areas. It’s a manageable amount for a fit cyclist when broken up over four days of riding, but becomes far tougher when you factor in the sweltering heat and crater-strewn road surfaces. No matter how much you’ve cycled, you’ve probably never experienced anything like it.
It is organised by Street Child, a UK charity that focuses on improving the education of some of the world’s poorest children. In May, the event’s first edition departed Bo, a city in the south-east of Sierra Leone, with a group of pioneer cyclists. The aim was to test out the practicalities of taking 15 riders, their luggage and a support team on a four-day expedition across some truly terrible African backroads.
I was fortunate to join this pioneer edition and was instantly enamoured with West Africa. The opportunity to cycle through these two countries gives an unprecedented glimpse into the real lives of the rural population – something the few tourists who do make it to this part of the world rarely see.
Cycling allows for slow travel; pausing and resting to enjoy a view (and drink some water) is positively encouraged. This reduced pace is what really lets you see into the hearts of these two fascinating countries.
Sierra Leone has one of the world’s fastest growing tourist economies, mainly because it is still reeling from long years of war and, of course, the Ebola crisis. Infrastructure remains poor. There are arterial roads that are tarmaced, but the majority of what Challenge participants encounter will be packed mud, with huge ruts and riverlets running all over them.
In Liberia, also devastated by Ebola and civil war, the roads are a little better, but there are still plenty of dirt tracks and – in rainy season – huge puddles of red water to navigate.
“It’s an off-road cyclist’s dream,” as one participant put it.
Along the route we saw monkeys scamper across the roads ahead and experienced real African river crossings, involving at least two cars and 15 bikes being loaded onto a rickety wooden raft, which is then pulled across the river with a big rope. We ate cassava leaf stew and mountains of rice, drank Star Lager in the evenings and cold sodas while we waited to cross the border into Liberia. We received spine-tingling welcomes in the villages where we spent the night, and had kids run out of their houses every step of the way, shouting and waving to us.
And of course, there are the visits to projects run by Street Child. These are perhaps the most eye-opening and valuable parts of the whole experience. So much can be done with a tiny amount of money – and to be in the communities that benefit from a fundraising expedition like WACC is truly special.
If you’re a cyclist looking for a new bucket list ride, or an experienced traveller searching for a new way to see the real West Africa, this is the trip for you.
How to do it
When it comes to the practical realities of the Challenge, it’s fair to say that accommodation in this part of the world is basic. Amenities are few, with much of what you need being carried along by support vehicles, rather than available to buy along the route. Water, for example, is a constant concern, which is why the cars are always loaded with hundreds of 500ml plastic bags of clean drinking water. I lost count of the number of these squishy pouches I consumed each day, but we never ran out.
Street Child arranges accommodation, meals and water within the package they offer and you can rest assured that wherever you are, where you’re sleeping is the best (usually, only) spot in that particular town. If you are afraid of roughing it for a few days then this is not the trip for you. There will be bucket showers aplenty.
If you’re looking for a luxury cycling experience, Dubai or Mallorca might be more your speed, but Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, does have a handful of luxury hotels, which you can upgrade to if you desperately need a touch of western home comfort before you leave. Make sure you visit the Donut Bar downstairs in the Royal Grand Hotel, whether you choose to stay there or not!
It costs £650 for a place on the West Africa Cycle Challenge, with a fundraising target of £1,500. The former goes towards the administration of the event itself, while 100 per cent of the fundraising money goes to support the projects Street Child works on in these two countries.
For more information, visit westafricacyclechallenge.com.