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First Timer In The Third World: A Bikepacking Adventure Through West Africa

Words: Till Schenk; Images: Courtesy, Schenk • From Issue 98

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Long hours on the bike are the best time to let brain waves flow. On one such ride, around the Spanish city of Girona, I wondered: “Why ride around in circles when I can ride from one amazing point to another?” That’s how a bikepacking adventure that would change my worldview began. I’d never done a trip like this. I bought the equipment (tent, bags, air mat, etcetera) just before leaving home; and I only packed the bags the night before flying out, not even knowing how it all worked. Three weeks after dreaming up the trip I was stepping out of a hostel room in Agadir, Morocco, with my buddy Thorben. My gravel bike was packed with everything I thought I might need for a self-sufficient trek through the desert to Senegal. It was a ride into another world.

PELOTON

On Day 1, we rode 160 kilometers to the foot of the Atlas Mountains. Locals strongly warned against camping in the hills, but that looked more appealing than stopping in the last village we saw. So we took our chances—and were rewarded with an amazing starlit night and an even better sunrise. Coming from a spoiled, comfortable and cushy life in Germany, I felt the tension of the unknown. By the time I woke up, I felt more excited, free and energized than in a long time, looking forward to three weeks of riding through West Africa.

spectacular night on the iron ore train
Spectacular night on the Iron Ore Train.

We were soon chasing pavement in the direction of Guelmim, the gate to the Western Sahara, the surprisingly smooth roads allowing us to make good daily mileage—despite battling heat, weighed-down bikes and some serious climbing. Our motivation was high, knowing once we made it to Tan-Tan, most of the climbing would be over and we’d be cruising along the Atlantic coast…or so we thought.

We made it to Tan-Tan on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to spend the night in the desert and wake up under the stars to start 2020, but after another long day I was riding my buddy Thorben into the ground. He’d been suffering with an upset stomach and we were losing solid distance. We finally spent the night in a hotel, hoping his stomach and body would recover. It would not…but there was no stopping. He was on a timeline and needed to make it to one of the airports along the route—and there aren’t many. We set our sights on Dakhla, a peninsula in the Western Sahara that has become a hotspot for kite surfers and retired snowbirds from Sweden and Germany.

toward the gate of the sahara
Toward the gate of the Sahara.

From Tan-Tan we made it quickly to the coast. Cresting the last climb, we expected to see the ocean. Instead, we saw our first sandstorm. And inhaling tons of sand was not beneficial to Thorben’s health situation. We continued to Tarfaya. Huge tent cities occupied by fisherman and unbelievable amounts of plastic trash were pitched outside the city gates. The poverty was overwhelming.

the iron ore train
the iron ore train
the iron ore train
the iron ore train
the iron ore train
the iron ore train
The fisherman’s family.
the iron ore train
The Iron Ore Train.

Western Sahara was taken over by Morocco in the 1970s, when 350,000 civilians and 20,000 troops marched into Western Sahara to build a Moroccan presence. Entire cities were built, many of which never saw a single resident. Even a ferry line to the nearby Canary Islands was started, but it closed after a ferryboat sank. The desert had taken over ghost towns, sand dunes buried the high walls of abandoned horse stables and the rusty remains of construction trucks lined the roads.

After Tarfaya, the headwinds were so strong on the coast road that we could cover only 20 kilometers an hour, leaving us dehydrated and hungry on reaching Port de Laâyoune. As we roamed this African city at night, realizing our fears are built on ignorance and the unknown, I saw how the trip was changing me. Thorben was fighting through every kilometer, fueled by no more than a Snickers bar for each of the past three days. Riding deeper into the Sahara, the desert became more remote, the poverty more obvious. We eventually reached the narrow peninsula of Dakhla and flew the last 40 kilometers in under an hour. It was clear why this was a kite surfer’s paradise.

After saying good-bye to Thorben, I headed back into the headwind—and the same 40 kilometers took me almost four hours! At a police checkpoint, I was offered a water refill. Through Morocco, the Western Sahara and into Mauritania there are police checkpoints every 50 to 100 kilometers where you have to show a passport or a fiche—with your personal data. The police pass on your travel plans to the following checkpoints. I heard they often refuse to let cyclists pass late in the day, telling them to put up camp and continue the next morning. Sometimes, if cyclists do not make it to the next checkpoint before sunset, they send out search troops.

I was rarely stopped. Most bikepackers have heavily packed bikes and ride around 100 kilometers a day, but I just had bags on my saddle, handlebar and frame; and after leaving Thorben, I was making up to 260 kilometers a day. I managed to impress several late-afternoon checkpoints with the “big-looking numbers” on my Garmin.

The longest stretch of desert road with nowhere to refuel was 180 kilometers of nothing but heat and sand. I stocked up, put my head down and got lucky with the wind—and lucky with one of the few cars whose driver handed me a bottle of water, but not without first telling me his political orientation. Diplomacy has failed to resolve the ongoing Western Sahara Conflict that has resulted in a 5-kilometer-deep no-man’sland (with no roads, government or law) along the Morocco/Mauritania border. I was told that the Polisario—the indigenous people who got pushed into this no-man’s-land when Western Sahara was taken over by Morocco—would capture me, decapitate me and throw my remains back over the fence into Morocco to blame them for losing a tourist.

And there I was, ready to leave the Western Sahara after a forgettable night in the filthiest, most rundown trucker stop I’ve ever stayed in. I didn’t believe the stories, but something inside me couldn’t shake the tension and suspense as I rode into no-man’s-land. The cars behind me wouldn’t follow for a while, as they had to unload and have their cargo checked. I was more than a little fearful of a stretch of ungoverned land that has yet to be cleared of landmines by the United Nations. Then I spotted a Polisario car coming my way. It followed me. I couldn’t shake the warning: “They will decapitate you.” It was impossible to ride through the deep sand and rocks, so I was pushing my bike when, finally, the first cars from Morocco caught up.

Crossing into Mauritania—one of the more corrupt parts of West Africa—you can pay a so-called service provider who bribes the authorities to hasten the visa process. Knowing I only had 70 kilometers left that day, I decide to wait my turn. It was four hours of waiting before being greeted with a look of contempt from a border cop, who just threw back my passport in my general direction.

My first stop in Mauritania was Nouadhibou, a coastal town where you can board the notorious Iron Ore Train. One of the longest and heaviest freight trains in the world, it allows you to ride in the empty cargo containers after they’re unloaded at the port. It’s a 20-hour journey to the massive iron ore mine near the Algerian border, with one stop just after halfway, at the village of Choum.

I met up with another long-distance cyclist, Esteban, who’d arrived in town the night before. After grabbing a bite, he told me to buy a thick blanket, as the train ride is brutal. Hundreds of people were waiting for the train. With a full moon illuminating the sandy station, Esteban pulled out his harmonica and began playing “A Wonderful World.” Within two songs almost every group—some women, a few mine workers, a bunch of teenagers—came together to share a peaceful moment of music.

When the 2-kilometer-long train rolled in, we needed help to manhandle our heavy bikes and bags onto a 5-meter-high cargo container. The train doesn’t wait for people to board, so you have to be fast. Ahead lay 12 hours through the Sahara. Iron dust and desert sand soon covered everything black, including us, as the wind howled and nighttime temperatures dropped to near freezing. My blanket offered some protection, but I was grateful to be lying with the stranger next to me, to benefit from each other’s body heat. Breathing through a Berber scarf, I fell asleep in conditions I could never sleep in back home. When the train stopped in the middle of the night for the Moslem crew’s prayer stops, the train cars slammed into each other so loudly—as if a jet plane was about to crash into us—I wondered if the train was being derailed.

the grind after the iron ore train
The grind after the Iron Ore Train.
the constant howling winds
the constant howling winds
The constant howling winds.
the constant howling winds

The sun, rising over a mountain, brought much-needed warmth. And we clambered up the side of the container to see the magic unfolding. The bread and fish we’d bought in the city was covered in iron dust—but it was eat that or nothing. On reaching Choum, we had to throw our bikes overboard, almost not making it off the moving train. By the time we were on the ground, a dozen kids had already opened our bags and stolen our electronics. After much swearing and threatening, and eventually getting help from a soldier, we retrieved almost everything—though I later realized my lights were gone.

Ahead was a 110-kilometer ride on sand-strewn roads into a headwind, over three mountain passes, to the city of Atar. I had to leave Esteban, riding at half my pace, when it was clear he’d have to camp in the desert. The next day I put in a solid effort to reach Akjoujt, giving me hope that I could make it to the coast and the capital of Mauritania with another 240-kilometer day. I was up at first light, but a sandstorm was brewing on the horizon. I traded my helmet for the Berber scarf to cover my face as the sky darkened and sand filled the air. The visibility was so bad even the trucks and cars were stopping. Not knowing how long a sandstorm can last, I decided to ride on. And then, deep into the storm, I faced the most horrific moment of my trip. A truck must have hit a camel, breaking its legs and splitting open its stomach. With the camel making bone-shattering sounds of agony, I contemplated taking my Leatherman to its throat, but unsure how to do it I continued on.

Several dreamlike hours passed before the sandstorm eased and I found a place to refuel. I eventually made it to Nouakchott, where I had a fun evening with a bunch of cyclists and bikepackers. By chance, the next morning I caught up with one of them, a funny kid from Hungary riding a beat-up touring bike he bought for 100 euros. We’d have two amazing days on desert roads, despite the begging getting aggressive and kids throwing rocks at us.

On reaching a national park we decided to ride through it before reaching the border with Senegal. I still didn’t have a bike light, so we shared his as we headed into complete darkness, only broken by reflections from the eyes of animals in the bushes. We crashed a gazillion times on the washboard roads and wiped out in loose sand. It was midnight by the time we pitched our tent at the border. After that brutal day, things changed entirely when we reached Senegal. The countryside was green, there was water, fresh fruit, people outgoing and laughing, and in the buzzing streets of St. Louis couples holding hands. In Mauritania, public affection, or even holding hands was banned.

the berber scarf was a life saver
The Berber scarf was a life saver!

Since my sandstorm adventure, when the axle housing came off my Crankbrothers pedal, my foot had been coming off the axle every few turns. Then, a story you couldn’t dream up unfolded. Pro bike racer Dan Craven, who built the Saffron-Pangolin collaboration frame I was riding, saw my posting about the pedal issues. Turns out, he raced and won the 2018 Tour de Senegal and his team mechanic lived in St. Louis. He made the connection and the mechanic picked us up. With the help of some locals, he found some super-rusty pedals and cleats and then invited us to stay with his family. We cooked in a courtyard, with kids, goats and chickens running around, and sat on the ground, digging into a big bowl of food with our hands.

After three hours in the courtyard, I went to see what was happening outside; and at that very second the backpacker we’d stayed with in Nouakchott walked by. It was a nice coincidence. He shared our dinner, spent the night with us and by the time I left the next morning he’d headed out to buy a bike. My day’s (and the trip’s) final destination was Dakar, where I’d planned on spending a few days before flying home. I wasn’t sure if it was the right decision, as people told me it is one of the worst cities in the world and that I should head straight to Gambia. But I needed to see for myself this megalopolis of three million people….

Well, Dakar proved to be the biggest hellhole I’ve ever seen, and that day’s 260-kilometer ride was the worst of my life. The industrial outskirts stretched for over 40 kilometers with unbelievable traffic. I could see a cloud of smog from afar and breathing got hard in the city. I finally made it to the beach and instantly realized, this can not be it. This can’t be the end. No way. So after a coffee with a friend I decided to head to Gambia.

Raging under a burning sun, I made it out of Dakar—and things got even worse. I was on what proved to be the main trucking route through Senegal; and the truck drivers displayed a total disregard for human life. If I hadn’t jumped off the road when they honked from behind, even if they had space to pass, they’d pull alongside and then pull their semitrailer back in, forcing me off the road. This happened more than a dozen times.

mauritanian landscape
Mauritanian landscape.
one of the few markets
mauritanian landscape
one of the few markets
One of the few markets.
mauritanian landscape
one of the few markets
an oasis for lunch
An oasis for lunch.

I survived this for 80 kilometers when I took a wrong turn. The road turned to gravel and then sand. Sadly, I am not smart. I didn’t think, “Oh, I took a wrong turn, let’s turn around.” I was more, “Let’s push on, this ankle-deep sand path must lead somewhere.” By the time I made it to civilization it was 10 p.m. I arrived in a dodgy-looking village and checked in with the police to see if they could suggest a place to pitch my tent. They welcomed me and called a barely English-speaking gentleman who, they said, “I could totally trust.”

He hopped in a car and I chased him through town in the dark, shooting intervals at 50 kph after a hellish 190-kilometer day. When we reached a compound secured by walls and steel gates I was completely cooked. He showed me my room and then told me I was not to go out or open my door under any circumstances as this was “a very dangerous neighborhood.” He said the steel gates would be closed and then, just to top off this horrendous day, he added, “You cannot leave until you give me all your money!” Oh great, I was the victim of a rip-off scheme orchestrated by the police. Fighting didn’t seem a smart choice, so I handed him my cash. His face told me this wasn’t enough, and he said I’d be picked up in the morning to get money from the bank.

I was just too tired and hungry to even consider being scared. But then my survival instinct kicked in. I knew my only chance of getting out was to get some sleep and then find a way to escape. After a short night of sweats and fever, I found a metal pole, jammed open the lock of the steel gate and chased out at 6:30 a.m. Fueled by adrenaline, I raced into a headwind, and after just 8 kilometers my energy suddenly dropped. I had a few coins left—enough for a Coke and a banana. Not remotely sufficient for a brutal headwind day of 110 kilometers. But after five and a half hours I made it to a big city and found a bank. Disgusting amounts of Coke and candy bars later I felt somewhat better and decided to continue riding. It was another 100 kilometers to the Gambia border.

Once there and with an hour of daylight left, I plugged on to the Gambia River. Its delta was stunningly beautiful, traffic had died down and I made it to a ferryboat that’s been called “a death trap that needs to be shut down.” I just made it in time, and knowing I wouldn’t have to ride the bike next morning I pedaled the last 16 kilometers in the dark to reach my final destination, Mama’s Team, a restaurant and guesthouse, at 11 p.m. The kitchen was still open and an amazing couple, Peyman and Matilda of Nomad’s Trails (they’re on a 10-year, around-the-world cycling trip), had ordered me a meal. I didn’t even wash my hands. I just waded in.

So, after 21 days, 3,100 kilometers, 141 hours in the saddle and some 50 liters of Coca-Cola, I was finished. I spent a few days on stunning beaches, getting to know the locals, cooking with fellow cyclists and walking around barefoot. And I’m now so hooked on bikepacking that I’m already wondering where I can go next.

Instagram: @tillschenklive

From issue 98, get your copy here