Even a day of riding in the countryside would've been asking a lot of the flimsy front tube I'd acquired in Mauritania with the help of Mohammed's right hand man Hadrani, so a replacement would need to be sought.

Gea and Willem, the quirky Dutch Magerus/Suzuki drivers who I'd originally met in Western Sahara, had told me the legend of KTM-racing Madou who dominated the West African enduro scene and—importantly—owned a small but reputable bike shop in Dakar. Willem had even managed to get hold of a business card and bestowed it upon me at our last meeting. On this clear, crisp day in Dakar my modest mission was to get myself to the address listed for Mad Bikes on that business card.

Slowly and deliberately I geared up and set off into the chaotic Dakar traffic, feeling like a little twig in a rapid as I merged onto Route de l'Aeroport and rode west towards Yoff. As I came up on the coordinates on the GPS screen I saw down a side street a row of very un-Senegalese bikes lined up neatly in front of a little shop with a low awning. I pulled into the street and added my big 990 to the line up next to an old Africa Twin, both bikes looking awkwardly over engineered (like Hummers in suburbia) for the mystical surroundings which their marketers had no doubt evoked to sell them.

Inside, the shop was cramped and quiet like an old bookseller's and though clearly every tool and surface in it had been time-tested it was clean and ordered. This set me at ease—anyone who knows me knows that neatness is the way to this man's heart.

I asked after Madou in my fledgling French and was politely escorted to a tidy office at the back of the small shop. What struck me about the space and its occupants was that it was almost monastic. There was none of the bravado and one-upmanship you find in the typical Western bike shop, where you feel as if you have to pass a secret masculine test before anyone will give you the time of day. By contrast this was a place of respect, order and humility.

Proprietor and champion Madou sat behind a modest wooden desk surrounded by trophies and brand paraphernalia. He offered me a seat. I stumbled slowly through an explanation of how I'd come to be in Dakar, how I'd found him and what I needed—hoping to build some of the rapport so crucial to any African business transaction. I managed to explain the curse of the constant front flats and he promised to investigate thoroughly.

Madou's wife popped in briefly with their newborn daughter and I was introduced to both before we returned to the workshop floor to inspect the bike which had been wheeled in by one of the mechanics. Madou noticed a leaking fork seal and suggested we replace it. I agreed. As he had a stock of (like almost everything else) personally imported 10W60 fully synthetic oil we also concurred that it would be best to do an oil change, particularly after the sandy stint through the Sahara.

I caught myself calculating the distance to the next likely source of quality oil which would be in 4,000 km away in Lomé, Togo. I'd previously been assured I would find there an expat with a warehouse full of KTM parts. Part of me seemed to be planning to travel on beyond the point lying one day's ride east of Dakar.

I agreed to the schedule of work and the price quoted (the mark-up on rare, exotic oils was noticeable but offset by the incredibly low rate for labour). Madou's team got started, carefully and meticulously disassembling the bike—gently setting each component or fastener aside and working quickly but calmly.

The care and craftsmanship these men exuded was unlike anything I'd seen before in a bike shop. I was used to leaving my prized possession in the hands of the typically more irreverent Australian mechanic who—if we take a moment to stereotype—seems to be caught up in a cultural trap of having to appear good without ever having tried to be. God forbid anyone were to discover that they might aspire to improve themselves and be willing to show that they have a need to do so.

I imagined the same scene back at home where the mechanics would be focused on performative larrikinism, chucking tools on the floor, scoffing at anything vaguely resembling a workshop manual and thoroughly stoking my well-developed uptightness about how my treasured investment was being treated.

I recognised in that little moment how our strange, sad Australian drive to appear unfazed had us shooting ourselves in the foot from the hip and saying "she'll be right" as we hobbled our way through our professional lives. We could just as easily leave the playground politics behind and learn a thing or two about grace from our African counterparts.

Once the front wheel was out and the tyre was off I was summoned to a small meeting to discuss the mystery of the perpetually punctured pneus. There was nothing obvious on the rim but it was given a careful filing to smooth off any potential burrs. A fresh chambre d'aire went in and I reached for a nearby bit of wood to touch hopefully.

If all workers of the world are in fact united it is in the need for a lunch break and when a young man entered the workshop carefully carrying an enormous steel bowl the crew simultaneously set aside their current tasks and moved towards the centre of the workshop, hands alternatively rubbed on oily rags in preparation. The bowl was set down and all gathered, seated on the floor around it. Madou invited me to join the circle and explained that they all ate together, every day, from the same shared bowl of Yassa (the poulet version today).

After each of us washed our hands in a second, small, plastic bowl brought out for the purpose Madou, being the elder of the mechanical tribe, was the first to eat. He then welcomed the rest of us to tuck in. He smiled at me as I diligently mimicked the others as we used our right hands to manoeuvre the delicious bits of chicken onto sticky clumps of rice from the little section of bowl in front of us each, being careful to leave a little left over to indicate that we had been well looked after.

It wasn't long after lunch before my bike had been restored back to its pre-Mauritanian glory and Madou suggested a quick spin around the block to make sure I was happy with everything. Unfortunately, all was not well and I didn't get far before it lurched, spluttered and stalled. It struggled to start again at all and each time I did get it to run the motor would cut out completely if I didn't hold the throttle constantly open.

Despite a comforting day up until that point this little hiccup had me instantly agitated. I wasn't resilient enough to handle unexpected unreliabilities and was counting on my bike as a source of emotional security, not risk. I limped it back to the shop and, clearly flustered, explained my concern. I dreamed up images of being left vulnerable and alone at any moment by a bike with a fried control unit or damaged fuel injector—or something equally mechanically mysterious that I'd be unable to fix.

I was convinced it was an electronic issue and though I had every faith in Madou and his team's mechanical ability it worried me that a technological problem was beyond the scope of their experience or equipment. The echoes of naysayers warning me against taking a "complicated" bike through remote parts of the world came ringing back.

Madou was much less flustered by the anomaly and suggested I leave it with him and he'd WhatsApp me once he'd sorted it. He wisely wanted to avoid an emotional onlooker getting in the way of the surgery. I relented and put my fate in his hands.

I was now living two realities at once. In the first I was a spiritually broken, dragging myself through the trenches and fantasizing about the moment the white flag would go up. In my second, simultaneous existence I was a soldier committed to my mission and moving steadily and determined across the battlefield as I ducked and weaved to avoid the emotional explosions around me. Although I seemed to be viewing things from the first I glimpsed my other self through some transcendental curtain as he methodically followed his plan to its conclusion.

Leaving the Mad Bikes maestros to their work, my militant alter ego took me in a rickety Renault taxi through the thick, psychotic Dakar traffic to the city centre where I needed to collect my long awaited Cameroonian visa. The gruff, arrogant official had me wait quietly at the rear of his office while he concluded a protracted, showy monologue directed at two staff members sitting opposite him at his large desk (which left little spare room in the office).

Once he had finished presenting his power to keep a white man waiting I was anointed with his attention and he rattled off various rhetorical questions in affected French as he tipped peanuts from a jar in his desk drawer and cracked the shells on his desk. I was unable to comprehend or meaningfully respond to most of his inquisitions but that didn't worry him as he simply provided the answers himself with a loud chuckle or grunt. Once the ritual had been completed he softened, handing over my passport, offering me some peanuts and warmly wishing me all the best for my journey.

Slightly bewildered, I followed my organised other self back out into the bustling Dakar streets and got myself another taxi back to Madou's shop. He'd sorted the bike in the interim.

It turned out that my earlier bush-mechanic repair in Morocco of the damaged side-stand switch (designed to prevent the bike from being ridden in the event the rider forgets to retract the stand) must have become slightly undone during the work done on the bike, which would've been impossible to see as it was taped, tied and heat-shrinked up under the engine. Madou had quickly narrowed it down to a dodgy switch and tidied up my repair. Back home the issue would've likely taken me weeks of stress and Googling to track down. This man was my knight in orange overalls.

As I rode back in the evening light on the freeway towards my heartbreak hotel I felt my two selves draw closer together as if a blurred image of me was coming back into focus. My disparate emotional and pragmatic selves momentarily aligned and instead of pulling me apart seemed to carry me in the same direction: onward. As if to celebrate this moment of hope in what had felt like an age of tragedy a car full of energetic young men pulled up alongside me, cheering and waving—and pointing at my left foot. I glanced down to where they had pointed and saw little bursts of sparks flying up from the road below the bike as I rode along.

I had forgotten to put up my side-stand.

Safe Space
Safe Space
Administering the Placebo
Administering the Placebo

© David Baskind · 2022