It was in a sense, a race to chase the setting of the sun and the outcome was still in the balance. Every so often, when my backside got tired I suppose I pulled over and balanced the overloaded Yamaha SR500 on the side stand and lifted my leg over the seat. I could see a long black trail snaking down the paved highway toward Zinder whence I had ridden that day on the motorcycle. It was the steady stream of oil leaking from the gearbox of the Yamaha caused by a broken seal and required me to buy and add oil as I rode.
Between Zinder in Niger, a former French colony where French is the unified language, and Kano in English speaking Nigeria, even in 1979 the highway was paved and a welcome relief after miles of sand dust and washboard ruts around Agadez on the way out of the Sahara Desert. I had crossed from Algeria in a German truck convoy, 350 miles of unmarked sand that in four wheel drive trucks took four days of intense struggle from Tamanrasset to Arlit where the hard packed road resumed, and where I unloaded my motorcycle from the truck and continued my bumpy ride with many falls in soft sand. On a map the brown line looks like a road, but mostly it was a suggestion.
Unfortunately my camera was one victim of my youthful bravado which I left exposed to the elements so I have no pictures of that journey and relying on my memory is as good as I can manage. However there was one aspect of that trip that has stayed fresh in my mind forty years later. As bad as the broken seal disaster was, or appeared to be, I was confident I could overcome it. I have no idea where that certainty came from but that night I laid my head down in the dust and dirt of the Nigerian border post parking lot and went calmly to sleep secure that I would get it all solved in Kano the next day.
It was a hot dry dusty ride, happily on the familiar right hand side like Niger, as Nigeria recently decided to maintain the same driving patterns as it's neighbors, all former French colonies. I was more focused on my oil situation than remembering which side of the road to ride on... I kept pouring oil into the gearbox and the seal kept letting a stream out onto the roadway. No one noticed or cared in the traffic jams of buses, cattle, pedestrians, scooters and large bundles of stuff carried on the backs of people of unimaginable strength and perseverance in that heat. I was 21, well nourished and exhausted.
In keeping with my weird and unexpected feeling of confidence I was picked up off the street by an expatriate British engineering firm whose workshops built me a new seal and after a week of luxurious hospitality I was on my way with an almost oil tight Yamaha. I watched the new seal like a hawk but it barely perspired and instead of being amazed I felt like it was all part of the adventure of getting things wrong and learning to put them right. I kept on keeping on. I took the main road to Maiduguri hoping to reach the border with Cameroon in a couple of days. Just like that. It had all worked out.
These days northern Nigeria is the badlands of sub Saharan Africa with fierce fighting between Muslims and Christians in places that when I rode through were settled and peaceful farmland. I would never now do what I did then, stopping in a clearing by the main road, setting up my bright blue tent and heating packet soup for dinner on my gas stove.(I told you my motorcycle was hopelessly overloaded). Shepherds would stop by and squat and watch me watch them as we made signs and grunted words to try to explain my bizarre presence in their backyard. I dare say I was the only tourist for hundreds of miles. I slept the sleep of the just, unmolested.
I had always had a great fear of snakes especially after Saharan travelers told stories of snakes sliding into warm sleeping bags to escape the cold desert sand at night. I had taken the precaution of buying a tent with a sewn in ground sheet for my journey so that I might sleep critter free and it did seem to work. A couple of years later when I rode my Vespa across the US I reduced my luggage considerably and traveled with a waterproof sleeping bag and no tent and that worked too for those snake-free roads. I put my tent up all over West and Central Africa and no one ever bothered me. I was into boondocking before it was fashionable apparently. And I didn't have Rusty the survivor to alert me to hidden perils in the wilderness!
I got lost trying to find the border with Cameroon, a former German colony managed by France and Britain after World War One with the result that half the population spoke French and the other English and no one was terribly happy about it. Least of all me as I never knew how to address anyone and the Francophones took umbrage if I greeted them in French and the English speakers looked politely pained if I opened the conversation in French.
I took an easterly route into the forest off the main road and of course the pavement ended and the dirt got rough until the track petered out into a dry river bed. My Michelin road map showed this as a road to Maroua in Cameroon where there was a main road south to the capital. I had a sneaking suspicion I was all wrong and lost but I pressed on through the river and onto the track on the other side. Youthful hope overcomes the wisdom of the elderly once again.
Wasn't I surprised when a police station appeared in the golden afternoon sunlight. It was as though the gods were following my progress and mocking me with barriers to my ridiculous tourist impulses. On a road little more than a dirt track in the jungle where I should have been alone and lost, a frontier post materialized. The flag was the red yellow and green tricolor of Cameroon and not the white and green stripes of Nigeria. I was back to speaking French once again I thought as I got my passport and carnet de passage (international customs bond for the bike) out of my tank bag. "Bonjour," I said confidently as I walked into the whitewashed building. "Oh hello," said the man at the desk in cultured middle class English, "What on earth are you doing here?"
I rather think the inspector was lonely in his backwater and in the manner of a Somerset Maugham short story he collared me and reminisced at some great length about the happy days of his youth in England. He looked at the consular signature on my visa, stamped and signed in distant London before the trip. He sighed, "I was at school with this fellow," he said as though we were old Etonians watching a cricket match and he wasn't thinking about a career that took a wrong turn. I forgot to mention I hadn't checked out of Nigeria owing to my unorthodox route and I wasn't going to bring it up when I did remember. A shortcoming that got me into hot water further up the road and required some dazzling footwork (in French) to save me a return journey to the Nigerian border to straighten out my carnet de passage paperwork. I slept one more night in the jungle setting up my tent in the dark, a job that I was quite used to and enjoyed without an audience for once; I was that alone. The next couple of days I rode to the train station and put my motorcycle on a train from Ngaoundere to Yaoundé to bypass a stretch of highway that was reported barely passable in rainy season. The neighboring country of Chad was enjoying a private but bloody civil war and that road was closed even to halfwits like me.
I had no seat and sat in the doorway with my feet dangling outside as we rumbled through dark forest and over long bridges, stopping in stations where I could buy coffee from vendors on the platform along with peculiar flour buns for a breakfast on the move. My companions put up with this strange cuckoo in their midst and made me at home in their overnight train world. It was magic (in French mostly).The journey was almost over though I didn't know it. I had contracted jaundice in Nigeria and I was flown home, my motorcycle following later by ship. From smelly train toilet to first class Air France, the privilege of wealth, and on to an isolation bed in an Italian hospital to recover from my hepatitis in surroundings familiar and boringly sanitary. I knew I was seriously ill as my family looked horrified as the skeleton stumbled through the castle door late one night and they barely recognized me, thin frail and bright yellow. I saw the look of horror in their eyes and I knew this time I'd gone a bit too far. Half a year spent wandering, unarmed, alone and naïvely hopeful put me in the hospital immediately and for three weeks. It seemed to be in retrospect the trip that set the tone for the rest of my life when I walked out permanently on my disapproving family and all that I had grown up with. No regrets as I was never cut out to be a farmer. Much more fun to get sick in the middle of nowhere.
I actually enjoyed coping with these types of streets.