Côte d’Ivoire – not so Grand Bassam

We arrived in Grand Bassam without a place to stay as none of the hoteliers had been responding to Zoe’s emails (west African customer service).  My heart sank slightly as we rolled down the lovely quiet shady street past some very nice guest houses, and continued to the less salubrious end of town. 

Jason snoozing while Zoe looked for a hotel
 We waited for a couple of hours while Zoe went to hunt out a hotel willing to let us pitch tents on their lawn. Some people waited in the truck sweating in the afternoon sun, others retired to the dodgy bar next door. The first hotel was willing, but they only had two nasty loos and were in the process of hosting a wedding party….. so Zoe kept walking and talking….

Derelict building

While we waited, the truck banter meandered, as per usual. Today’s topic – one of the younger men on the truck is considering becoming a gigolo (which he pronounces like giggle-o with his accent). He received significant amounts of advice from the women on the truck about the physical changes and personality shifts that would be required for him to be successful. ‘It’s not about the thrust count’ was helpful advice. We considered running a silent auction on the truck to see what type of fees he could earn, but none of us were necessarily keen on executing on the contract.

Reggae central

Eventually Zoe negotiated us rooms and camping at a hotel that appeared mostly derelict from the street side but slightly better beach side, with more than it’s fair share of rubbish. Given the pitch site was tiny and 19 of us would share two bathrooms, Becky and I invested $20 each per night to ‘upgrade’ to a room that was vaguely clean but did have working arctic aircon and a burny hot shower

Maison des artistes

Grand Bassam is a sleepy beach town, the former capital and is described as having a ‘faded grandeur’…., ‘faded’ is perhaps an understatement. The buildings were definitely grand at some point but now appear abandoned and mostly derelict, albeit lovely in the morning light.

I like big butts and I just can’t lie

Maison des artistes

However, almost every building had people living and working in the ruins, including the wonderful Maison des artistes. The art here is vibrantly African. It looks great en situ, but would look terrible at home in the grey london light. We had a relaxing wander around town, chatted to some groovy Rastafarians and even had some young students ask for a photo.  

Wall mural
Wall mural

We wandered up the beach to see the fishing boats and the very cool kids body boarding, literally on boards of wood. Sadly the fishing village rely on the sea for their ‘bathroom plumbing’ so there were abundant and smelly piles of human excrement awaiting the morning tides for disposal. 

Fishing boats near the human sewer

Hot and sticky in the midday heat I retired to the shade next to the pool to read and profit from the sea breeze. I opportunistically took my laundry with me as it dried better than in the room. It was nice to have a lazy afternoon followed by a long walk along the beach.

Colonial building with washing drying

Grand Bassam, December 8&9, 2016

Côte d’Ivoire – in the capital Abidjan

We arrived in the glamorous town of Abidjan in the early afternoon. The approach was a lovely transition from countryside to village to instant urban slum 

Roadside vendors

The lonely planet lists two major sites – the Pyramide and the cathedral. The Pyramide is a much feted piece of Italian architecture. I don’t know why. It looks like crap.
La Pyramide

The cathedral did look more interesting but there were about 400 military officials surrounding the entrance and we weren’t allowed in. Later we found out that the first lady’s father had died and it was his funeral
Abidjan cathedral

We found a cafe and had an extremely overpriced nespresso and then wandered round looking for inspiration. The town reeked of piss and was full of the dodgy characters you would expect in a capital city, offering to sell us Samsung 7s.
Sign banning pissing – It was ineffective

We did find a nice contemporary art gallery highlighting some of the finest local pieces.

Modern Ivorian art

After a quick stop to buy cheese and bread in the posh supermarket we headed for dinner to the hippopotamus – a French chain burger and steak restaurant – for an acceptable steak and chips.   
African Jesus

Getting back to the hotel on the outskirts of town was a mission as the funeral traffic was hectic, and after a lot of braking and swearing and driving along the footpath we made it back to our air conditioned haven. On the bright side, the cab drivers here seem reasonably honest and whilst we are probably paying slightly over the odds, they are charging what locals told us to expect (which is more than you can say for all london cabbies).

Abidjan skyscrapers
The verdict in Abidjan – I wouldn’t bother :-).  Others on the truck did love the western mall and nice supermarket but I can see that at home.   

The delicate equilibrium of truck peace was mildly discombobulated in Abidjan as our budget didn’t stretch to double rooms each, hence some tent pairs had to split up to form triples (with the third sleeping on the couch and the other two sharing the bed). My roomie and I were divided and we coped, but were happy to be reunited the following day. However in a shock switch up, the two worst snorers were paired together after complaints from one of their tentmates about lack of sleep. Both snoring offenders look tired this morning and wry smiles are being exchanged by the rest of us! Ironically it turns out the original complainer against the snorers is also a snorer who kept his new roommates awake. Worse, he is apparently a bathroom hog who spent 40 minutes doing his beauty regime before he was forcibly evicted from the bathroom. They quietly requested that room assignments be swiftly restored to status quo. 

Abidjan, December 7, 2016

Côte d’Ivoire – Ahouakro genies in the rocks

A couple of folks on the truck are Unesco obsessives, and as we had a spare day, yesterday we headed off to Ahouakro – a tentative Unesco site between Yamkro and Abidjan to check it out. There was remarkably little info on the internet and none of the locals seemed to know about it, but apparently it is an area of large rocks with the local tribe believe have spirits or genies within them. 

Village kids in new Ahouakro

We stopped at the village to ask permission from the chief to visit the site. The chief asked for a sacrifice of a bottle of gin and a chicken, and given we only had gin (which no one wanted to forfeit) and no chicken, he agreed to accept 10000 CFA’s instead (about €15).

Local ladies hauling logs
 While Zoe was discussing things with the chief I had a chat to the village girls, the eldest ranging from 10-13 about school and life. They were pretty smart and are still at school and enjoying French lessons. Amusingly they asked me how old I was, and when I told them, one of them rushed off to get me a chair to sit in. Adorable!!!! I was old enough to be their granny and they were clearly worried I would fall over.  

Sunrise over the quarry

Unfortunately the guide was working the fields yesterday, as he didn’t know we were coming. So, we were given permission to camp by the quarry which is filled with water. Most people went for a swim, but the presence of ample amounts of cow shit put me off. I had a chat with some local ladies who told me they don’t swim there because there are genies in the rocks. We also managed to disturb the local rhythms as when the cows came for water they didn’t want to go past the truck so the herder had to take them another 30mins around the corner.

Local lady carrying water from the quarry (50kg)

We were on cook group last night, and given the paucity of supplies available when we shopped, we had chickpea and pumpkin tagine with couscous which was very well received. It was a humid humid evening and most of us were sweating in the shade and drenched in our tents.
Ivor and Christian

This morning we had an early breakfast, packed up and headed up to the site after picking up our entourage in the village. 

Our sacrificers – the one on the left is holding the chicken and chanting
 We had three guides, two sacrificers and a couple of hangers on. And yes there was a bottle of gin and a live chicken. Happily the chicken was not killed, she was just released after the ceremony (she was too shocked to go anywhere). Apparently her stillness was a good thing as it indicated all was well. If she had run away immediately we would have had to leave the site. After the libation sacrifice, the gin was shared but just among the men (no women allowed). 

The primary male dolmen

Then we were allowed to visit the principal male dolmen which will apparently protect us now as we have made an offering. His female rock is some distance away, so the villagers say that they often see him in spirit form heading off to visit her. 

Our guide describing the rocks
The rocks were lovely, even if I didn’t feel the genies! I doubt they get many visitors here, but if you are in the hood it is worth popping by
Balancing rocks

Ahouakro, December 6 & 7,  

Côte d’Ivoire – bonkers Yamoussoukro

Yamkro is a bonkers town! It is officially the capital of Côte d’Ivoire but isn’t really as all business, embassies and ministries are in Abidjan! It was built by the first president who was in power for 33 years to become the capital in 1983 on the site of his home village. It is the home of the mad basilica and several empty six lanes highways.

Yamkro Basilica

We started by visiting the worlds tallest basilica -modelled after St. Peter’s, but higher. The windows – the largest area of stained glass windows in the world – were made in Bordeaux. The chandeliers were made in Murano. The marble entrance walkway is 1km long. The garden is modelled on Versailles (but doesn’t really look like it).

Two of the few worshippers at the basilica
The building is air conditioned. The building seats 20000 people, but given most people in Côte d’Ivoire are Muslim, peak service is 400-800 people on Sunday.
Picture showing the relative size of Yamkro versus St. Peter’s
Apparently it was ‘gifted’ by the president to the people of Côte d’Ivoire from his own ‘personal funds’ (which no doubt were ‘legitimately earned’ from the populace). The largest attendance ever was for the presidents funeral where 200,000 people filled the gardens outside). One nice touch is that there is a statue of an African Mary. I also like the electric candles which you illuminate by feeding coins into slots. And hilariously the president had inserted himself into the stained glass depiction of Palm Sunday. Amusingly there is a small exhibit comparing the size of the basilica with St. Peter’s and the Notre Dame, to fully demonstrate this is the biggest in the world.  It was quite an experience but hard to comprehend why all this money was spent here versus on all the other things that could have been invested in.  

The dome of the basilica

After a quick stop off for supplies in the piss-reeking downtown, we retired for the afternoon to the hotel president (the poshest in town) in search of coffee and lunch at the ‘famous’ panoramic restaurant. The view was great but did highlight that Yamkro was bizarrely empty. I would have taken some pics of the view but the windows were filthy. We were successful on lunch and chocolate cake! They eventually asked us to leave the restaurant when they closed at 3pm as we were still freeloading on the wifi, but did invite us to relax on the couches in reception and keep using the wifi. We finally abandoned our ‘office’ at 6pm, but were amused that not once did anyone question our right to be there….. something that would have certainly happened elsewhere.  

Hotel President! The UFO of Yamkro

A few of us skipped dinner with the whole truck as it can be irritating to wait a full hour (or two) for most restaurants to cook 19 meals, and then dividing the bill always seems to be a nightmare. Instead we headed out for a ladies night to La Brise, are pizza and steak and confined ourselves to topics that did not involve moaning about anyone or anything to do with the truck.   
Yamoussoukro, December 5, 2016

Côte d’Ivoire – stilt dancing in Silacoro

The pigs started snuffling at the tent door at 3.30am, the roosters started at 4, and then the rhythmic drumming of the village women pounding sorghum started at 5, so not much of a lie in. We gave up trying to sleep at 6, and packed up the tent and went in search of coffee. There was already an attentive audience of kids watching the cook group preparing breakfast

Dawn in Silacoro above the hut roofs

The village had organised some dancers for this morning as there wasn’t enough time to do so before nightfall yesterday. 

Village girl checking us out
Like all things in Africa, it took time for things to get moving. The first half hour or so was warm up. The younger kids did some back flips. The older men did a sophisticated shuffle. The teenage boys adorned their legs with bells and did aggressive and sweaty spins.  

Teenage boys dancing with bells

Throughout four tireless drummers kept a rhythmic beat accompanied by the chanting of most of the village women and girls who had turned out in their Sunday best to watch and support. 

Friendly chanting village ladies who asked for a photo
 The main event for the day was a stilt dancer, who was likely still a novice. He also did some creative spins, but didn’t quite manage to nail his back flips. The highlight for me was watching the women and kids enjoying the performance. 

The stilt dancer
More lovely village ladies who asked for a photo
 We donated some money to the chief as a thanks, but managed to get out of giving him the soccer ball he had eyed on the truck and wanted for the kids.

Village ladies dancing before the stilt dancer arrived
Grooving village lady

We then headed back to Man to buy supplies for the next couple of days. Man is a pretty sad and dirty town with an uninspiring ‘supermarket’ and a limited supply of fly blown fresh produce in the town market. On the bright side I found some hot bread and yogurt….. a nice change from eating the bread we buy, which we always eat the day after purchase (in France we would only give day old bread to the cows).  

Young village ladies who led the chant for 2 hours – Silacoro

We are all happy for the extra space on the truck today to stretch out and the tensions seemed to have diminished somewhat today after yesterday’s short fuses. As my favourite truck introvert reminded me yesterday – she wouldn’t willingly spend this much time with her best friend, let alone with a bunch of strangers who she didn’t choose. 
 We were told last night we will spend two consecutive nights in Yamoussoukro (‘Yamkro’), and that is a huge gift! A day not on the truck is fabulous!!! We all love the truck but we have spent a few too many long days thus far. No doubt a couple of days off will continue to alleviate the pressure.  
Tonight we were planning bush camping en route to Yamkro just passed the town of Daloa but when we couldn’t find the bush camp site at 5.30pm we all voted to continue the 120km to Yamkro. Fingers and toes were crossed on the truck for hot water and wifi, the ever present hopes of the grubby overlander.   

Kids where we filled up with jerry cans
We rolled into Yamkro after eight and saw the basilica next to the six lane highway but apparently they can’t afford to light that section of town right now. In the middle of town there was a section of well lit streets and numerous kids were using the streetlights to read and do homework.
Bonus shot of the dancing village ladies
 My tentmate and I decided to make the huge investment of $15 each to upgrade to a room rather than camp in the garden (best use of $15 ever! I even did a victory dance in the room). And I was shocked when some weird hot stuff came out of the shower! What a night!!!!!

Yamoussoukro December 4, 2016 

Côte d’Ivoire – from Gbapleu to Silacoro

I slept like a baby in spite of the chainsaw sounding snoring coming from the trucks chief snoring offender until the roosters woke me up at 5.30.   

Kids saying goodbye to the truck in Gbapleu

We left Gbapleu and meandered along the bumpy road to Danane, probably averaging 4km an hour. we hadn’t seen a vehicle for the last 24 hours, just the odd motorbike. Like much of the countryside we have traversed, this is ‘real Africa’, no electricity, no mobile signal, neat mud huts, village wells, and latrine blocks of 4 shared by the whole village (normally with an Aid sign nearby saying something like ‘fin de defecation d’aire libre’ i.e. ‘stop crapping in public’ with a suitable cartoon illustration). All available surfaces are festooned with pristine clean rows of laundry (unfathomable to me how the get the laundry so clean). Small bamboo stalls with tiny piles of the limited merchandise available are kept in business by the brightly attired women swaying effortlessly down the streets under heavy head loads while carrying one baby on their backs and at least one more kid by the hand. Men in out-of-date premier league shirts lounging round on motorbikes and lots of kids, goats and puppies running about. Most of the villages we pass are very friendly, although there is the odd person who shouts and demands some cash or food.  
Kids welcoming us to Silacoro

Truck dynamics continue to evolve, and the morning seating routine is analogous to solving a complex set of simultaneous equations i.e. If a wont sit next to b, and c can’t abide d, and e has horrendous BO, then where should f,g and h sit?……I normally avoid these complications by sticking to sitting with my tentmate who is blissfully quiet on long journeys. However, occasionally the ‘seat reservation’ process does not work seamlessly, e.g. today one of our bags was mysteriously moved even after we had ‘German beach towel’ reserved our seats by placing our day bags on them. To avoid any acrimonious debate I moved across the aisle and had a free seat next to me during boarding. It was a tense few moments as the others boarded the bus ….as there are four people I resolutely will not sit next to – 3 for personal hygiene aka stink reasons (oddly these are also the same three I won’t tent near as they all snore and as two of them have been known to start drinking before lunchtime, the odour and snoring is not surprising) and one because he is clueless and inconsiderate (the aforementioned offender who won’t bury his loo roll and takes photos at borders who has been nicknamed ‘the idiot abroad’ by one of the guys on the truck). Fortunately I was saved from 8 hours of smell or rudeness by one of the other ladies on the bus who sat down next to me. It would seem that everybody rubs somebody else up the wrong way at least once a day, inevitable given the close quarters and long days. Tempers flare and sharp words are exchanged frequently. This continues to be an interesting anthropology experiment in forced group living. Most days I am fine provided I get to go for a run and get enough sleep, and then I find everyone else’s antics amusing.

Kids loving the selfie feature
After Danane we were on the tarmac, which is cause for great excitement as it means natures air conditioning starts working (and there are less bumps). Most days we are in the high 30s with lots of humidity. You sweat lying down in the shade and positively melt standing in the sun. On the truck when we are on slow roads the air is torpid and slow moving and every occasional gust of air is a blessing. On the fast roads I am like a puppy dog with her head hanging out the window enjoying the breeze.

Pounding the sorghum

Three of our number hopped off the truck at Man today to take a bush taxi direct to Yamkro, where we will all be arriving in three days time. Robert’s heat rash has evolved from something mild into a horrendous pussy mess on his foot, and even though he has started on antibiotics, it isn’t a great idea for him to be bush camping for two more nights with no running water. Eva is joining Robert and his wife Vicky as after six weeks on the truck she has decided a time out is required. 14 vs 17 sweaty bodies on the truck will undoubtedly be an improvement.

Rob’s foot

We arrived at the village, and we had tried to call them to arrange some stilt dancing but they hadn’t answered. So while they were pleased to see us, they weren’t able to arrange any dancing until tomorrow morning. 

Kids wanting photos of themselves
 The village is lovely but we were quite the entertainment. The men and kids took up residence on our stools and were entertained by cook group prepping dinner. The kids were delightful and were obsessed with getting their photos taken.  

Pitching tents in the middle of the village

We are camping in the middle of the village among the houses. They apparently don’t have latrines which seems odd for a settlement of this size, so we will be digging holes. Cook group 1 made us soup, salad and French toast for dinner. And we are with a loud and chatty audience who watched us until the last person went to bed. That much scrutiny is fun for the first hour but gets a bit wearisome after five hours. 

An attentive audience watching dinner prep

Silacoro, December 3, 2016

Guinea to Côte d’Ivoire – Sleeping in the customs post at Gbapleu

I started the day with a misty run through Nzerekore, watching the town wake up at 6.30. Families washing in the street, kids starting the long trek to school, vendors setting up their stalls for the day, young kids starting to make their water selling rounds, goats and chickens wandering around for food and the very persistent drone of the mototaxis taking people to work.  

Kids chasing the truck in Guinea to say hi

While having no internet, running water, electricity, or toilet is fine for me for a week or so, I am reminded every day that this is life for 99% of the people we pass in the truck. In most of these countries, literacy rates for women are less than 30%, genital mutilation of young girls is up to 98% (e.g. in Guinea where FGM he is technically illegal), and life expectancy is about 50. Most people here only eat once a day, and it is rice and oil. If I had been born an ordinary woman in most of the countries I have visited I would never have made it through primary school. It puts into perspective how wonderful and easy my life is, and does stop me moaning (sometimes) about having not enough food. I am grateful every day for the amazing life I have, and that I was born where I was.  

Curious kids staring at the truck as we approach the Guinea Liberia border

We backtracked to Lola and Gogota and found the dirt road to the Ivory Coast border. We passed a few villages were Babus were clearly in short supply as the kids chased the truck waving and smiling as we drove through. We stopped at immigration and we’re surrounded by a ‘plague of children’! Guinean exit was relatively straightforward as Zoe had come up a few days earlier to check we could pass, as there are very few tourists coming this way. 

Kids who emerged from bathing in the river to check out the truck

Kids in Gbapleu

We were aiming to make camp relatively close to the border as the area further into Côte d’Ivoire (Danane and Man) is a bit sketchy and was a rebel stronghold during the wars. We will go through there tomorrow but won’t be hanging about. Once we passed the border and got to the customs post 3k later, we asked the local village if we could camp there. We ended up being welcomed into the customs agents staff quarters and having water heated up on the fire for hot bucket showers with the village chiefs’ blessing, and pitching our tents in the covered living rooms (no glass in the windows and concrete floors) between their bedrooms (putting the tent inners up so we were protected from mozzies). 

Village kids checking us out at the customs post in Gbapleu

 We had an incredibly warm welcome! I can’t imagine sleeping at a customs post anywhere else in the world! This for sure is part of the magic of overlanding! The customs chief was extremely friendly and gave me his address. I did assure him that I was married and not interested. He assured me he was married but had room for more wives. Hmmmmm.

Very curious audience watching the tents go up at the customs post

Gbapleu December 2, 2016

A day in the life of overlanding in west Africa

On a typical day you wake up early, either when the generator kicks in or when the sun comes up. Scrabble around in the tent, decide whether or not your clothes stink enough to merit a change, or whether you can endure one more day in the same gear. Pack up…. Deflate the thermarest and wrestle it into the bag. Fold up the silk sleeping sheet which was not necessary in the steaming night. Round up your still damp laundry from the night before and shake the spiders out. Squish everything into the backpack battling to keep the roaches out of your pack. Fold the tent, carefully!, making sure there are no passengers (roaches and large spiders) and that the tent is as flat as possible so it folds easily. If not folded properly it takes 15 goes and a near hernia to get it back in the tent bag. I am a master, mine always goes in first time.

Cook group prepping breakfast

On to breakfast. The cook group will have inevitably made eggs and bread, on rare occasions we are treated to cereal (very expensive here). Inhale large coffee (actually more like dirty water than real coffee but it is the best we can do). Then make lunch for the truck – more baguette, more eggs, sometimes tuna, sometimes pasta salad, sometimes a pink mystery luncheon meat (blech), on a good day some tomatoes and avocado.

Mosquito bitten overlander legs

Pack up the truck, everything has its place down to the sanitiser by the door. We squish ourselves into the truck, navigating around everybody’s washing strung up from the ceiling. Loud chatty people down the back, quieter readers up the front. Negotiate your place in the charging queue for your device (occasionally contentious). Drive, drive, drive some more.   
Stop every two hours or so to pee in the bush – guys to the front, women to the back (keeping the paper to put in the truck bin and reduce pollution). At some point we start the inevitable snacking, sharing squashed biscuits and half melted chocolate. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)

Loo at Tiwai camp – one of the nicer ones on our trip

Pass a small village where pale skin is seldom seen and enjoy the fact that the kids run after you and adults wave, and unlike other parts of Africa, they arent begging, they are just surprised to see you. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)
Pause for Zoe to get out of the truck to see if we can make it through the enormous puddles and/or for Jason to check we are on the right road. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)

Zoe in the road checking the water depth on the ‘highway’ from Sierra Leone to Liberia

Eventually eat your squashed sandwich and fantasise about yummy food from home. Try not to acknowledge the growing stink from your neighbours. Drive, drive, drive some more
Navigate a checkpoint. All involve a big smile (from us) and a friendly ‘how are you’. Some involve a stop and a protracted set of questions. All involve the ‘officials’ checking out Zoe’s legs. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)

Bush camp at the side of a dirt road

Eventually, at some point when dark threatens, we make camp (normally somewhere the guys know). Ideally there is water and power. Often not. By this time we might have been on the road for 10 hours but only managed to go 100km on a good day or 20 on a bad day. Put tent up (avoiding snorers). Try and find some water to clean yourself and wash your smelliest laundry. Hang up yesterdays laundry which still hasn’t dried. Make some tea. If you need the loo, don’t forget to take the trowel. Hang out and wait for dinner (keener ones will do bootcamp of squats and sit ups). Depending on the cook group dinner will be at 7 or as late as 9.30, but will always more or less be pasta/rice and some type of tomato based sauce. Have more tea. Go to bed and dream of having a hot shower.  
It sounds pretty grim, but it’s not. While it isn’t luxurious it is quite fun. For sure this will be my one and only overlanding experience as I am too much of a solo traveler, but it is fun and you get to see things, places and people you would not see on normal trip. And if you are going to have a proper overlanding experience (no internet, no phone, no other trucks, wild camping), then west Africa is the only place to do it