Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mission accomplished!

Somehow I seem to have completed my hike! I'm not sure how it happened, but after 11 walking days I found myself at Lake Gjende and the end of the looong trail. Hopefully more memories from this epic walk will come back to me as I go through the photos from the trip, but judging from the appearance of my feet, I think it's safe to say that it was a tough walk.

I was this happy to arrive:
Unfortunately, that's all I can show you here. It's so hot in Oslo now that I'm wearing an icebag on my head to survive. The combination of the amazingly long beard and the turban-like headwear makes me look like a, well, suspicious person, so since I may want to fly internationally again someday, I suppose it's best to not have that image of me floating around on the Internet. And I WILL fly internationally again. If this walk has taught me anything, it's that distances of more than 300 kilometers should not be walked!

I'll be back with some photos from the trip soon. I just wanted to tell you all that I'm alive. #8D)

See you!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Oh dear...


I've just grown a new layer of skin to replace the lost bits from my last hike, and if I kick my big toe against something hard, it's almost as if I've regained some of the feeling inside it. So I guess it's time to head for the woods again. Lots of path left to do before I reach the Jotunheimen National Park.

The weather forecast is excellent, so I hope to reach Kittilbua, a place just north of Lillehammer, by the weekend that comes. To increase my chances, I've filled my backpack more sensibly this time. I took out some of the biggest books from last time, and I'm packing food for just 4 days. (And chocolate for a week, of course.) And as if that wasn't enough, I've even trimmed my toenails, and I've been to the hairdresser and cut down a bit on the hair on and near the top of my head.

This means I won't be around to answer any e-mails the coming week. will try to fill in for me, so head over there if there's anything you wonder about.

See you in a hundred miles or so!


Monday, July 14, 2008

Travels in the Interior of Africa

In 1799, Scottish explorer Mungo Park wrote a book with the same title. I read it before going to The Gambia in November 2007. Its description of the lack of resources in the country made me prepare for my trip by adding somewhat to my body mass. The book also offered some practical advice. I would apparently be wise to "bring lots of guns and ammunition", and I should avoid camping near the natives. Not an easy task in Africa's smallest country.

Of course, much has changed during the two centuries since Mr. Park visited, but if you want to leave the hotel strip on the coast, visiting The Gambia can be quite strenuous, even today. "Come and mostly enjoy our edible foods", reads a restaurant advertisement in Banjul, the Gambian capital. Well put, I have to say.

Banjul can be a scary place to visit, especially after dark. Not because of the crime rate. The man in absolute charge of the country for the last decade and a half, President Jammeh, knows that if people had weapons, they would use them on him. So as a tourist, there's not much reason to fear the people of Gambia. Unfortunately, due to poverty and a limited supply of electricity, after dark in Banjul really means in the dark. Add open sewers to that, and you get a city where walking around at night can be rather risky.

I decided to leave the capital and go up the river. There was no public transportation by boat available, so this meant I had to travel by car. I spent two full days doing so, although I wasn't actually moving for more than about six or seven hours. This took me just 120 kilometers inland, but it left me feeling as if I had crossed the continent. And I was a world away from the tourist beaches on the coast. The journey didn't cost much, apart from some blood, sweat and tears - and lots and lots of patience.

From Banjul, you first have to go to Bundung Garage in Serrekunda. There are no scheduled buses in The Gambia, hence there are no bus terminals either. Instead they have bush taxis. These vehicles are usually in a condition that makes it sensible to call the place where their passengers can find them, "Something Garage". You have to be there early in the morning because that's when the bush taxis leave. I wasn't going very far (by any non-Gambian standards), so I figured that leaving around noon would be suitable. I was wrong.

At the garage, I found a 30-seat vehicle waiting for more passengers. The driver needed an additional 25 before he would find it environmentally or, more probable, economically sensible to set off. One hour later we were still 25 short. I sort of gave up on getting anywhere that day, but I stayed put. In a poor country like The Gambia, you can't really comfortably walk around and look at how people live. But you can sit and wait for a bus that will never leave, and simultaneously look at how people live.

I was the only ghost face around, and the locals found much entertainment in me. They kept pointing at me and telling funny facts about foreigners to each other. The children would sneak up on me and caress the "fur" on my forearms. To many of them I must have been the first monkey man they could experiment with at such close range. I guess evolution long ago removed all heat-inducing mechanisms, including body hair, from the Gambian gene pool.

The driver spent the day sitting in the shadow of his car, chatting, drinking hot tea and smoking marijuana. His name was Sambo Dumbo, and I'm not even making that up!

Among my co-waiters were two old women who were coughing in a most tuberculous way. In the end I concluded that getting in that car would probably kill me one way or the other. So I didn't. Instead, I went back to the beach for a late afternoon swim, and I promised myself to get up earlier the next day.

This worked out well. When I returned at dawn, the car was still there, but the driver had been replaced with a more sober one. The two old women had probably died during the night. At least they were gone. At eight o'clock we had a full car and got going. That's when I discovered that the ticket was cheap enough that I could have bought all the tickets the day before and had the bus take off whenever I wanted to. Of course, demonstrating my relatively speaking insane economical powers like that, would not be to show good manners.

We drove for a full three minutes before the driver stopped at another garage. Our tires desperately needed more air. I'm not entirely sure why he couldn't have arranged that during the day and a half he had been waiting for passengers, but there may well have been a good reason for it. Maybe. Then we drove for another five minutes before we stopped for fuel. For the rest of the drive, we also stopped every thirty minutes or so, to fill up on water for the car radiator. I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm just saying that going by bush taxi in The Gambia isn't necessarily a quick way to get around.

In some countries, the traffic is so bad that your chances of survival are best if you sit in the back of any moving vehicle. In The Gambia, I figured I would be better off bribing the driver with a dollar or so to get the seat next to him. That's the only way I could have a good view of what went on outside. It was completely safe. The driving was so slow that there was no risk of a collision with anything bigger than a snail.

That said, we DID drive off the road more or less all the time. But that was just because ironically, the road conditions were most of the time better there than on the actual road. It's just ridiculous how bad the roads are in The Gambia. The only place a pedestrian there can feel safe is in the craters in the middle of the roads! Gambian stray dogs seemed to know this. They spent their days sleeping on the road, waiting for night to come, when they would wake up and start their tireless howling.

Anyway, I sat in the front where I could see what The Gambia was like. It's a flat country. All I saw was what was on or right next to the road, which wasn't much. At least I learned that most people appeared to spend their days sitting in the shadows of trees, scowling at the occasional passing car that showered them in a red cloud of dirt and sand. The locals weren't difficult to cheer up, though. All I had to do was look like a badly sunburned whitey and wave at them, and they would immediately beam their white teeth in a smile back at me.

The numerous police and roadside soldiers didn't smile much. Typically because it had been seventeen months or something like that since the President last paid them their salary. They did, of course, need some money to survive, so they cashed in on just about every vehicle that passed by. They didn't want much, but they took their time getting it. It seriously delayed our progress.

I had been warned about this, so I had brought some small notes to pay the various fines I was given. The crimes I committed ranged from sitting with my backpack in my lap to not being able to explain exactly which coastal village in northern Norway I had been born in. Soon I didn't bother with putting away my passport and my yellow fever vaccination card, as I was asked to show them at every stop we were forced to make.

I soon was taught not to photograph anyone wearing a uniform. They're not that photogenic anyway, but the main reason to refrain from doing so, the driver told me, was that I risked being arrested. Apparently, taking photographs of the police is what a spy will do. And although I can't imagine why a spy would photograph the slumbering, corrupt police of The Gambia, this would probably not keep me out of jail. And there are better ways to spend your time in The Gambia than in one of the local jail cells. On the other hand, there are certainly worse alternatives as well, but I'll save that for another story.

Briefly, a relatively short ride in a Gambian bush taxi can be quite eventful, in an extremely slow kind of way. I do recommend it, at least as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you want to see more photos and read about travelling in The Gambia and Senegal, please visit my West Africa gallery.

(This article is my own work, and it featured on the Boots'n All Web site in May 2008.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Without a Backpack

Ah! One week after returning from the first leg of my walk to the mountains, I still very much enjoy being at home. It's not quite as wonderful as the first few seconds after you take off your heavy backpack, when you positively feel that you need to hold on to something in order not to float up towards the sky and disappear. But it's really, _really_ nice to be home, where all kinds of everyday luxuries are within my grasp at any time.

Anyway, on the map to the right you can see how far I've made it:

So there's plenty of walking left to do, and I will do it as soon as the weather forecast promises at least five days in a row with no rain.

While I'm waiting, I'm working on some writing and I've prepared the photographs from the trip. Feel free to have a look. Please note how I'm transformed between photos 1 and 45, from being a walking deodorant commercial into a sweaty bastard with no will to live. Highly entertaining, in retrospect.

I hope you all enjoy your summer as much as I do!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Will I ever walk again?

Like a normal human being, I mean. Or should I just resign to the fact that my theme song from now on will be Genesis' "I can't dance" ("I can't dance, I can't talk. Only thing about me is the way I walk.")? Here's how I've gotten around during the last couple of days:

1. From a sitting position on the ground, I put my feet together with the weight on the outside of my soles. Pushing hard with my hands I get into a crouching position, from where I whimper as I slowly straighten my body upwards.

2. Slowly, slowly, I distribute my weight across the full area of the soles of my feet. It hurts tremendously!

3. For about ten steps I stagger ahead like a very old man (I would say like an 80 years old man, but that would be an insult to the 81-year-old who swiftly walked past me in the woods two days ago) on his way towards his walking aid.

4. After ten seconds or so, some kind of internal painkiller system kicks in, and I can almost start walking like I used to, you know, back when I had not yet started on this hike. If I stop for a few seconds, though, the pain is back, after which I'm likely to start shouting bad words at the innocent trees around me.

Anyway, due to bad weather, a desperate need of a camera battery recharge, many lessons learned about efficient packing AND, I'll admit, some minor body malfunctions (see above), I've taken a break from my hike. At a spot about 120 kilometers into the 320 kilometer walk, I was just five kilometres away from public transportation that could take me back home. It was a most convenient place to take a break.

It's been a great hike this far, and I've learned a lot from it:

* Anyone voluntarily going on a hike like this must either be mad, in absolutely superb shape, or not at all have understood what lies ahead of them. Hundreds of miles/kilometers of walking through what is basically wilderness is durn hard work!

* Efficient packing is crucial when you have to carry on your back everything you need for a number of days. I'm still no expert, but I've learnt a thing or two by now. For instance, there's no point in carrying several bricks made of paper that you intend to read before you go to sleep in the evening. What happens as soon as you've put up your tent and eaten your dinner is that you collapse into unconsciousness inside your sleeping bag.

* July may not be the best month for multi-day hikes in the forests of southern Norway. Most of the snow in the mountains has melted already, and there's little rain. This means it can be difficult to find streams with potable water. It's fairly warm weather, so you may have to carry a LOT of water on your back. Or you have to resort to drinking Chateaux de Lemmingcorpse or Eau de Shit de Sheep, i.e. brownish marsh water. (Not recommended.)

* Usually when vampire bats attack in the middle of the Norwegian woods with a loud shriek, they're not really vampire bats at all, but just the mattress I carry on top of my backpack, scratching a branch that hangs across the path.

All this is valuable pieces of information that I will find great use of as soon as I return to my walk in the woods in a few days (hopefully).

Happy trails!