After several days, possible one too many on my part, and success all round in the rugby, we headed out of Bamako. James was not feeling too great, so we decided a short jaunt to a waterfall was a better activity for the day then the mission of getting out of Mali and crossing the border. Excellent idea. Except the waterfall took the best part of three hours to get to, with two hours of offroading - what every fragile tummy needs. As I drove on and on, over increasingly difficult terrain, stopping repeatedly to allow James time to throw up out the window, I realized we might have made an error. Anyway, after a certain amount of offroading, you just have to continue, so we did and were rewarded with a waterfall, which we appreciated for about 10 minutes before we heading back to the town to try and find somewhere slightly kinder on tummies to stay. We got back to the town, and after having no one smile at us for a full hour, we decided this is not the place to wild camp, and eventually headed back to Bamako – with occasional stops – and checked into a nice hotel. Ultimately, after a day of driving through the bush in 35 degrees we had successfully managed to get back to where we had started. We might not have got the hang of this overlanding.
We headed out of Mali the next day, glad to be getting away, to Burkina Faso. And this was the start of our love affair with BF. It is a charming country. The people are endlessly honest, never trying to bribe or con us, to the extent that when buying vegetables in the market, we got chased down as we had not taken our full quota of aubergines. We spent the best part of a week pottering from waterfalls, to geological formations, to beautiful forests, camping in small campsites and villages, and feeling extremely welcome and safe. A real treat was a night camped next to a lake near Banfora. We had sundowners on the lake, with hippos just next to us in the water, and then woke to a pirogue trip at sunrise where we managed to get right next to one. The Sindou Peaks were another treasure, a geological formation just on the border of Mali, which we wandered around in the blistering heat.
On the way to Ouagadougou, the most excellently named capital in the world, we stopped at a town famed for elephants, and had heard rumours of a hotel which allowed camping located on the river where they came to drink. We followed some massively outdated GPS coordinates, and after offroading for 30 minutes, scratching the hell out of Stanley (he’ll do a lot for elephants), we arrived at a dilapidated hotel with ten workmen standing around, quite surprised at the arrival of two white people. It seems the hotel had been flooded in the previous rainy season, and I mean flooded, the marks on the terrace go up to the roof. They planned to open again next year but were happy for us to set up camp there for the evening. We cooked up a spaghetti bolognaise, showered in one of the beautifully refurbished rooms and watched the stars only disturbed by the two night watch men calling their girlfriends for several hours. Sadly, their phones ran out of battery at 10pm and we just didn’t have the same charger. Shame. Unfortunately no elephants blessed us with their company but it was hardly a surprise with the huge amount of goats, cattle and donkey, and the inability of the national park to function after the flood. We woke on Valentine’s Day, aware that our day might differ from others back home! We had bought strawberries in the previous town, and had them as a treat, soaked in bicarbonate of soda, of course. After having a spectacular fry up we heading to Ouaga where we had a nice dinner in a restaurant, although you needed to go through a metal detector to visit it. It was packed with African ladies dressed to the nines as well as internationals out for dinner. Quite extraordinary to find somewhere so busy after a week on our own.
The biggest problem, if you ask James, about travelling through Western Africa, is they just don’t understand the importance of rugby. We were in the above small town for the Ireland vs France match. All hotels seemed to be shut and there seemed no obvious place to bribe our way into a Rugby match. Til Café des Amis. They had a TV, canal plus (satellite channel) and electricity and seemed happy to show the match in exchange for a couple of Fantas. Things started to get a bit more heated when Real Madrid started a match on the other side but James managed to hold his own, refusing to release the remote for love nor money. As the chickens wandered around our feet, I mostly enjoyed the Burkinabes reaction to rugby – grimacing at every blow.
As always in this area, we are on own. Mali, needless to say, had no tourists and BF is no different, although it seems to have a large international population of miners, NGOs and UN who get a chance to see the country. The locals report their tourists are hugely reduced from last year, after the attacks in Ouagadougou. It seems shocking that we can camp next to hippos or visit geological masterpieces and be totally alone, when in other parts of the world people fall over each other for such an opportunity.
From Burkina, we headed to Cote D’Ivoire, a country recently recovered from its second civil war this century. And my God, do the roads show it! From the border, we drove 250km of pothole ridden asphalt, that if caught at speed, could happily destroy your axle, some 2ft deep. Every now and then the road would get better, and you would be immediately diverted off, as these were the small areas they were trying to fix. A few moments of relief as you think things can’t get worse, and then the realisation that the piste, although not bad in itself, when mixed with buses and lorries, was impossible to see through. The sand gets everywhere, and when passed by said bus, you cannot drive, only hide in the corner til the dust settles hoping that for once, Africans are keeping to their side of the road.
And then, there’s Yamasoukra. This is the capital of Ivory Coast, formed on the birthplace of the previous President. It also hosts the largest Basilica on earth, even larger than St Peters in The Vatican, as well as six lane highways. After two days of driving on horrendous roads, trying to protect Stanley as best we can, this is quite a bitter pill to swallow. Especially as for the majority of the drive, we had been trying to buy some vegetables, nothing fancy, maybe an onion or a tomato and had seen nothing in any of the villages. Only Yams. Well at least they have religion. It remains an interesting place to visit and from there we head on to Abidjan, and the beaches thereafter. Other than a nasty encounter with the police in Abidjan, requiring a £20 fine / bribe for driving in a bus lane (this is Africa, there aren’t bus lanes), the uneventful drive of deep orange sands and palm trees ended in a beautiful beach resort two hours out of the city. From here we set up camp and write the blog, camping for free in the grounds of a nice hotel overlooking the Atlantic coast. Don’t worry, we’re utilizing their bar enough to make it worth their while. As their only tourists, it’s a responsibility.
We would like to thank Ding.com for their support with communication, phone credit and internet to allow us to update the blog.
We drove into Guinea-Bissau, a small archipelago of a country with a Portuguese heritage and a population of 1.7million – approximately a third of the Republic of Ireland. One of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $600, we were quick to fall in love with it. It’s had repeated trouble with coups, and has famously not managed to keep a president for a full term in decades. As we drove on pretty good asphalt road, we were one of a handful of personal cars, with most transport being buses or old blue Mercedes, acting as taxis. We drove to Bissau, the capital city, and set up camp in the car park of a hotel/restaurant. The hotel was well populated with UN staff and NGO staff, the only other westerners here, and got a bus into the city. By bus I mean a Mercedes van which has been emptied out of seats and then has benches put in in order to accommodate as many people as possible, with a driver and a boy who hangs off the back collecting passengers and payment. As bus stops don’t really exist we experimented with a few locations until eventually one stopped. We got on and went in the direction of town, much to surprise of the already very full bus. Being that the official language of Guinea Bissau is Portugese, and only 14 % of the population speak that, the chances of us communicating with the bus boy were very low. We gave him some money, 1000CFA, approximately 1.50 Euro, and he gave us our change – 800 CFA. This was checked by all the passengers on the bus and they seemed happy we hadn’t been shortchanged. The bus boy told us to get off when he thought we’d got somewhere white people would like – a shopping centre, and we obliged as we weren’t particularly sure where we were going. After checking Maps.me, we realized we were still a mile and a half off the city centre and flagged down the next bus.
Bissau is sleepy. That is an understatement but the best I can do. The Lonely Planet sings its praises, as in fact do I, but it certainly oversold the night life and party atmosphere within the capital. We went to the main restaurant and had a few beers and a nice dinner, and there were a few internationals but most people went home long before us. We tried to find the “night clubs which got started at 1 and kept going to dawn” but the best we managed was an empty, seedy bar where Total Eclipse of the Heart seemed to be on repeat. We walked around the main roundabout, and found a few other internationals doing the same – it’s possible that this is all there is to do in Bissau. But we were still quite charmed. The roads in the centre, outside the President’s Palace, and the political Ministries , resemble a choppy sea more than the smooth roads you would expect in the political centre of a capital. The police have a much quirkier method of asking for bribes. One asked if he could have my sunglasses after I got him to apply our Guinea Bissau flag to the car, another mentioned he needed more credit for his phone. When we pretended to not understand, he acted this out for us. We explained we had no money and we needed to go to Bissau to get some, he accepted this understandably. To be fair, there are only ATMs in the capital city.
We thought another day in Bissau might kill us, so we headed to Quinhammel. Other than a tiny town, this is a hotel run by two Italians. Apparently, they sailed here in their catamaran seven years ago on the way to Brazil, and have never quite managed to leave. And you can understand why. It was stunningly beautiful and peaceful, and we had a lunch of grilled oysters and white wine. They did however have to teach me how to get in to them, as my current experience with oysters did not stretch to the 30 that sat before me. Just as we were getting used to another night on our own, camped out in their car park, a boat arrived carrying 10 Polish fishermen. What followed was the most panicked shopping I have ever witnessed, as they all realized they had bought their wives and children nothing and were heading home tomorrow. “How much is this wooden fish?” in Polish then English, then Italian, then Crioulo– one of the many local dialects. We went over and had some drinks with them and found they had been fishing in one of the tiny islands off the coast for 10 days, hooking fish weighing up to 88kg. It’s amazing what conversations you’ll have when you’ve been on your own for weeks…
We drove the whole length of Guinea Bissau and then back up into Senegal. The roads remained pretty good until we got to a small town just before the border. We had been told by the Italians that this route was passable and quicker then heading back on ourselves, but it was on no map we had. We got to the town and the roads fell apart, almost requiring us to go into low gear to get down the high street. A man on a bike directed us through to the piste that would lead to the border and we headed on to Tambaconda in Senegal. We spent a few days and nights, just driving and camping in hotel car parks. We pulled into the last one in Kedougou, western Senegal and walked into paradise. A beautiful lodge overlooking the Gambian river, exquisite internet and cool beer. This was not what we had been expecting so far off the tourist trail. Of course there was a catch – after swimming in the pool, having lunch and downing a few cold beers we realized we had decided to spend the night in a hunting lodge. It did seem odd that everyone other than us thought military fatigues and guns were the height of fashion. It was the blackboard depicted the price of every animal that finally made it click, and the room full of trophies. With a national park, classed by the Unesco as “in trouble”, down the road I’m sure this is helping. Well if nothing else, I destroyed their download limit.
We got up crazy early to make our way to Mali. We had no intention of driving late at night in this notorious country and had broken camp and were on our way by 7. The border was charming, with extremely polite and friendly border officials on both side. We arrived at the Senegalese border at breakfast time and all the police were having breakfast. We told them not to worry and finish their breakfast and were invited to join them. The Malians were no different, in full uniform, extremely professional and polite. We battled through with our dodgy French and just as we were leaving customs, the captain asked James, in perfect English, where he was from in Ireland. When he replied Dublin he responded, “Ah that’s where I lived for many years and my family still are.” There can’t be that many Malians than have done a stint in the Emerald Isle.
We drove along the newly constructed road until we got to a turn off up to Cool Camp – a well-known overlander spot. After 100km on rough piste, which took three hours, we arrived at the most beautiful camp. Set just below a dam, with crystal clear water and hippos and a crocodile, allegedly, living in the river this was where we met Casper. Casper bought this land and set up a campsite here 3 and a half years ago, two weeks before the troubles started. Needless to say it’s not been plain sailing for him, and he has had to diversify into banana farming, along with many other vegetables. He was an extremely interesting man and prided himself in doing so much for the local villages. Thirty years ago, the World Bank had given over 200 villages a water pump, and maintained it for 5 years. For whatever reason, the locals had been unable to maintain them since then, either not knowing how, or forgetting, or unable to get the parts. So for decades, the villages had no clean water. He had made it is his mission to repair every one. Originally, he explained he used adult labour and encouraged the boys to go to school. After finding boys who had been in Madrassa schools for five years and were unable to speak French, read or write he stopped encouraging them to go to school and asked them to work for him so he could teach them the basics of farming. I liked him a lot and had a lot of respect for him, but as we were the first campers he had had in a month, I know for a fact I could never do what he does. We stayed there happily in complete isolation, with fresh papaya and bread delivered daily to the bonnet of our car, camped on the banks of the river, and swimming daily in the heat of the day, listening out for hippos. One night we were convinced we could hear a pod, however, in retrospect I’m sure it was a donkey. We even had one of his truly free range chickens for dinner, which one of the boys took pleasure in delivering to us ready to barbeque.
I write the blog this week from The Sleeping Camel in Bamako. It’s a bit of a culture shock as we watch the Six Nations in a bar surrounded by UN police and military, with Malian artists DJing for the evening. Bamako was a joy to drive into, driving over the river Niger with sweeping tree lined boulevards, a beautiful cathedral and a national museum that marvels those in European capitals. It’s difficult to know what else Bamako offers as it’s so far off the tourist trail, especially of recent years. The south of the country feels very safe and comfortable although I would be lying if I said we hadn’t checked the hotel out from a security point of view on arrival. I feel truly sorry for Mali, as it seems to have so much to offer but has been destroyed by Islamic fundamentalism. We struggle to see how it will improve. There are things in Mali we would love to see from Timbuktu to the Dogon region, and we keep saying next time. Sadly, I’m just not sure there will be a time when it is safe in our lifetime.
Liz Jarman & James Nunan
Our trip from Essex to Cape Town & back again
Km travelled : 50818km
Countries visited: 30