West Africa by scooter
An interview with Brendan Van Son - Brendan's Adventures
Canadian-born Brendan van Son is a well-established travel blogger and photographer as well as the founder of Vagubondo Magazine.
All images provided by Brendan van Son. Scroll over images to see captions.
After travelling on the safer side of things in the past, he decided to jump into the deep end and cross West Africa by whatever means necessary - starting out in Morocco and travelling through the Sahara to Mali by public transport, en-route to the ancient city of Timbuktu.
Seeing the scooters everywhere in Bamako, he thought to himself, "I wonder if that would make it to South Africa?”
So he asked a taxi driver one day how much it would cost to buy one ($700) and in a crazy spur of the moment decision, it was settled.
After purchasing his fire-engine red scooter, Brendan started a naming contest for her on social media. His twitter and facebook pages were soon bombarded with suggestions paying tribute to his nationality, and making a tough call between Pamela Anderson and Anne Murray (a popular Canadian singer) he settled on Anne Murray.
And so another legend was born, this time the mechanical horse that was fated to carry Brendan from Morocco to Cape Town in the spirit of the legendary African explorers of old.
This Anne Murray, however, was of dubious origin, possibly Chinese-made, maybe Korean. "The locals in Mali call them Jakartas”, Brendan told me, "which would almost make you think they were Indonesian.
The bike even had KTM logos on it, but really, who knows. It came out of a crate in Bamako and I watched a group of people build it in about 20 minutes. It’s basically a copy-cat of the old Honda 110ccs”.
6 months later I read about Brendan in a Cape Town newspaper, and immediately tried to get in touch to set up a meeting. But as it turned out, I’d missed him by a matter of a day or two. Of course, this didn’t stop me from pestering him via email to answer my reams of questions about his trip.
I was particularly inspired by the fact that Brendan didn’t know much about scooter mechanics, didn’t carry much other than a tent and some basic clothing (not even a first-aid kit or basic food supplies) and didn’t have a GPS - really espousing the get-up-and-go freedom of scooter riding (through Africa no less).
The article below covers all the questions I fired at him and hopefully anything you’d ever really want to know! If not, please do send me a mail and I’ll do my best to find out for you.
What’s the most you rode in one day?
I did over 500 km one day in Nigeria, and it was hell. The highways in Nigeria are death zones. I don't know why I pushed so hard that day. Looking back it was just foolish.
Did you have any issues with Anne Murray?
Oh god yes, the whole way down she fought me. But to be honest, since the mechanics on the bike were so simple, it never caused me issues. The only thing was that the engine mounts got really loose over time, and I actually almost dropped the engine coming through Namibia.
Other than that, I had plenty of flat tires, but luckily that was the worst of it.
I know very little about mechanics. I basically lived off the idea that someone would be able to help me, and there always was. The best thing about having a scooter, is that if there was ever a major problem, I could put her in the back of a truck and drag her to the next town. Luckily for me, it never came to that.
How many kilometres have you travelled by scooter?
I'm not really sure. The odometer on her broke when I crashed in Cameroon. When I plotted the trip initially, I estimated about 15,000km. I'm guessing that with all the detours I did, it ended up being closer to 20,000.
But, it's pretty important to realise that distance is relative in rural Africa. A 100 km sand road from Gabon into the Congo can take 10 hours, whereas in Namibia on a straight tar roads that same distance takes about an hour and a half.
What was the fuel usage like?
Very minimal. I had a 4 litre tank which could pull me about 170-200 km. As the bike got older, the consumption levels got worse, but not by much.
How did you choose what gear to bring with?
I really didn't bring much, other than a water bottle. I just rode in a jacket, jeans, and my running shoes.
1 jeans, 1 shorts, 3 t-shirts, 2 collard shirts, 7 pairs of underwear and socks.
1 nearly broken laptop, 2 external harddrives (500gb, 1tb), 1 Canon 60D, 1 GoPro, Canon 50mm lens, Canon 70-200mm lens, Sigma 18-50mm lens, and 1 $5 Nokia cell phone.
How did you fit everything in the scooter?
I attached my big rucksack to the back of the scooter using rubber cut from old tractor inner tubes. I wore a 10 kilogram backpack as I rode which had all my camera gear and laptop in it.
Where did you sleep at night?
I spent a lot of nights in my tent. Sometimes I would just rock up at a village and ask the chief if I could camp there, and they would always welcome me. I stayed in hotels as well.
In Southern Africa, I had some hostels put me up like the amazing Jollyboys Backpackers in Livingstone and Chameleon Backpackers in Windhoek.
What is the best and worst food you encountered in Africa?
Actually, I liked it all. I was a massive fan of the food in West Africa especially. Things like mafe (a spicy stew) are incredible. I did get quite sick of the lack of variety in Central Africa though. Of course, the braais in South Africa and Namibia were legendary as well. I'm a master on the braai now.
Do you have a mission? Or a cause? Do you support any kind of NGO?
No. Not really. My mission was to try to dispel the myth of Africa being this black hole or danger. I wanted to show the world that the people of Africa are beautiful caring people with a great sense of community. I think I managed to do that. I hope I managed to inspire some people to travel to this part of the world, or at the very least change their perceptions.
Did you have any sponsors?
Nope, I tried at first, but most sponsors were really apprehensive of having their name tied to something that could potentially be dangerous. I had a sponsor join and then back out at the last minute because they were worried. I ended up doing it all on my own.
Did you plan at all or just go?
Yeah, I planned as much as I could. But things change constantly, so I really just stuck to my plan the best I could. I set myself deadlines, and I really needed to be in Cape Town by a certain dates. Luckily for me, I managed to stick to my schedule pretty well.
Did you map out your routes beforehand?
Yeah, the best I can. I would use google maps and just have a look and then try to memorise it. If all else fails, there's always someone on the street corner who is able to point you in the right direction.
Did you have a travel guide or did you rely on people advising you on best things to see/do?
I travelled with digital versions of old Lonely Planet guides as well as a Brant guide. I really only used them to help me out with accommodation, though. They were also good for their maps. I'd do some research online as well in regards to things I should see in certain destinations. Wikitravel is good for that.
Any incidents? Please detail your misadventures specific to travelling on a scooter.
Other than my crash in Cameroon, I was pretty incident free. I ran out of fuel once and had to push the bike 2km uphill to town. I was nearly run off the road a bunch in Nigeria. The sand road in Congo was the biggest challenge of the trip, read all it about it here.
As far as theft, the entire 18 months I spent in Africa I wasn't robbed, or ripped off even once.
Tell me some of your most scary/dangerous or just challenging experiences on this trip.
It was easily my time in Kinshasa. There is just such a paranoid state to that city. The police and military are so corrupt, and there's a desperate feeling to every transaction you have there. I really didn't feel comfortable at all there.
Even counting the time I got malaria and nearly died, I'd take that over Kinshasa any day. Read the only honest man in Kinshasha for more.
How did it feel, just you, mostly alone and on the road?
You know, the road was fine. I actually loved being on the road. It let me think about life, dream about where I want to go in life, and explore ideas. It was my freedom.
The hard part was when the driving stopped, and I was alone at a dinner table or in a hotel room. It really was incredibly lonely. I've never experienced such a state of loneliness in my life. It almost made me want to settle down and establish a stable life.
How did you find working while travelling on a scooter? For us it was virtually impossible - do share your thoughts
God, it was hard. Especially since I was in places that had no electricity half the time. Getting internet was surprisingly easy. I would just buy a USB internet in each country and I was set. However, it was incredibly hard to find a good plug-in for much of the trip.
I did get very good at working offline, and then being productive online when I had the chance though. Of course, some things had to fall to the side for a bit. I let my travel mag Vagabundo Magazine slip a bit when I was on the road, but it's back now and stronger than ever.
How do you think travel on a scooter compares to other forms of transport?
I love it. For me, it's a nice way to balance the benefits of having your own vehicle and the personal side of public transport. In a private car, you can feel like you're in a viewing cage with sharks, protected from the world and unable to really interact with it.
When you are in public transport, you can't stop when/where you want. Being on a scooter gives you that freedom to explore, but also allows you to be open to the world around you.
How did others react to you?
Amazingly. There was always this reaction going through the villages, regardless of the country. It was "Oh here comes a motorbike. No wait, that looks strange. Is that a white guy on a scooter? Yeah it is, better wave with two hands and give a massive smile".
It was like you'd see in the movies, the kids would scream and chase me down the road. It was hilarious every time. Of course, I did get a lot of the unwanted: "Give me money. You're white, so give me money". But for the most part it was awesome.
What’s been your favourite destination/experience in Africa?
I absolutely loved Namibia. There is such variety in that country - Wildlife, culture, landscapes, and the night full of open sky and stars is unreal. I was also a huge fan of Burkina Faso. Again, there is a lot of variety there and the people are so friendly.
Are you keen to travel more in Africa? Would you do it again on a scooter?
Yes, and probably not on a scooter. I'm planning on doing eastern Africa in the next couple years. However, I have a different trick up my sleeve. I don't want to tip my hand, but I think this will be another really unique experience.
How did you manage on a budget? Any tips?
The trick to living on a budget, for me, is that I have a once a week rule. Once a week I allow myself to splurge on food, accommodation, or something else. Without that reprieve it would be hard to do. You really need to build a budget and track it to be successful. If you don't keep tabs on your spending, you'll never know how well you're actually doing.
What’s the coolest mode of transport you’ve taken so far (in your entire travel experiences). Please tell me why!
Easy. I stowed away an Iron Ore Train in Mauritania for 14 hours into the heart of the Sahara. It was amazing. I spent the night under the stars, shared tea with a couple locals that were also stowing away. Read more here.
What is the one place you don’t want anyone to know about but will share because you hope nobody will read this blog?
Probably Burkina Faso. That country is so cool, and really easy to travel around. I think the other would be Sierra Leone. The love I have for those two countries is amazingly high.
Do you care about your impact on the environment when you travel?
Absolutely. I feel like it's really important. I saw tourists in Indonesia this week complaining about the garbage on the beach. I am sure they have no idea how much plastic and paper they consume on a weekly basis that contributes to this. I think most travellers become conscious not only about how much people consume at home, but the environmental toll it costs for them to travel the world.
So how do you reduce your impact?
I do the little things. I take public transport as often as I can, I reuse absolutely everything that's possible, and I try to buy products that don't have a massive impact on the environment.
How did you turn what is usually a hobby into a career?
You don't treat it like a hobby, you treat it like a career. You invest all your time and money into it, and you build around it. If you want to be your own boss, you can't do it as a hobby, you have to be spending 10-12 hours a day working on it.
Do you think your travels have influenced the world in a positive way?
I really hope so. I know that a lot of people were following along with the journey. I got lots of messages saying that my journey managed to see the world in a different light. The truth is, however, no matter what I gave back to the world, it pales in comparison to what I got out of the journey.
Where are you right now?
I'm in Lovina, Indonesia, getting ready to head up to Java Island and Mount Bromo.
Travelling South East Asia, then up to China and Mongolia, I hope!
To follow Brendan's adventures, check out his website.
Return from West Africa by Scooter to Eco-friendly Africa Travel