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Africa: through the lens of a camera

by Archives January 17, 2007

Cycling 12,000km across Africa with sand up to the knees, the sun beating down at 55 degrees, following indiscernible roads carved into hill-like paths by potholes, is likely a futile and even undesirable dream for most people.

For Samuel Bail though, a 20-year old economics student at McGill University, his five month racing trip across Africa kick-started his new hobby: photography.

Bail’s photography, which will be shown this week at McGill University, doesn’t just cover the eccentricities of cycling through perpetual heat and sand.

His exhibit reveals the people and culture of Africa through his own eyes, from world-renowned places like Cape Town to small African tribes where the cyclists pitched their tents.

Arriving in January, Bail spent a week in Cairo where he got his less-than-glorified first introduction to Africa.

“They were loading up cargo [onto the ferry boat]. and people were having fistfights. I saw two people getting thrown into the Nile off of the dock, it was absolute chaos.”

Having participated in his fair share of challenging competitions, including racing across Canada and riding with the Canadian National Team, Bail decided to take on The Tour of Africa.

This race, spanning over 12,000km, is known as one of the most difficult bike races in the world. It lasts approximately 96 days and cyclists cover almost 124km a day.

Once on the road, cycling across Africa provided challenges Bail hadn’t foreseen, such as those he encountered in Sudan. Bail had planned to sprint ahead of the pack and take the race, but quickly found out sand in Sudan, to a cyclist, is not just sand.

“I took off and in two kilometers I went down a huge rock and had a flat. I changed it and within 60 seconds and I was back on my bike, riding again,” recounted Bail.

“It’s over 50 degrees every day, it’s knee-deep sand you have to walk through. You can bike, but as hard as you pedal, there’s no way you’re getting anywhere, you just get stopped dead and you have to walk with your bike. If it wasn’t deep sand, it was corrugation. like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life,” continued Bail.

While riding up to 95km a day, Bail drank water so chlorinated he said it tasted like a hot tub.

In Sudan, delirious with exhaustion, missing his tool pack, dehydrated and hungry, Bail found himself arguing over a goat cheese sandwich with a Sudanese travel guide while he attempted to fix an inch-wide hole in his tire with a pack of tire patches.

“I thought if I put nine patches on it I could fix it, I was absolutely delirious, so I just put glue everywhere, and [had] glue all over my hands,” continued Bail.

“I was putting patch on top of patch and he had this goat cheese sandwich and he wanted to share [it] with me, and it’s 55 degrees. I was losing time like crazy and the last thing I wanted was a goat cheese sandwich.”

And he’s like ‘No, it’s really good, we’ll share, we’ll share,’ and I’m like ‘No, no it’s fine, I just don’t want a goat cheese sandwich!’ And I kept trying patches, and there was no way it was going to work… I lost my voice swearing at an open desert.”

As he rode, Bail discovered that winning the race was not his first goal. He wasn’t experiencing Africa as much as he would have liked due to the necessity of speed.

“You’d wake up, race, have your head down through villages, you wouldn’t stop at all during the day,” he said.

After the first month he decided to continue cycling with the pack, but as a budding photographer, withdrew from the competition.

With no regrets about his decision, Bail said he began to look at Africa in a different light and to think of the surroundings in terms of how they’d look in pictures.

“Instead of doing a race in four hours I would do it in 11 to 12 hours. I’d just take pictures, walk around, stop everywhere there is to stop.” Bail, blessed with extra time now that he wasn’t pushing for the lead, took the opportunity to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, which he said turned out to be a healing remedy for his sprained Achilles’ heel.

Bail biked into Cape Town, their final destination, with a strange sensation.

“It was not so much a trip as a way of life,” he said, referring to the trials of having no access to running water, eating foreign foods – proceeding to throw up regularly – and lacking regular washrooms.

“I couldn’t imagine it was actually going to end.”

Bail is currently plotting a-front-door-to-front-door trip, inspired by a group of fellow cyclists from Cape Town who rejoiced to ride their bikes right to their front steps after the five-month trip.


Samuel Bail’s photographic exhibition, Capturing Africa’s Soul, Photography from 5 months and 12,000 kilometres of cycling from Cairo to Cape Town, is on diplay Jan. 8 to Jan. 19 at the Macdonald-Harrington Building at 815 Sherbrooke Street West, Rm 114. For more information, contact 514.398.6704

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