As I sit here writing this blog, the events I´m about to write about were two weeks ago. It seems like two months or maybe even two years! So much has happened since then and our lives are so different.
Liberia was the low point of the trip so far, yes the conditions in Monrovia were bad and the humidity was unbearable but the real low was in how we and the rest of the group were feeling. We knew something needed to change and it needed to change quickly.
So when we overtook the truck on the long, dusty road towards the Cote D´Ivoire border we decided to just keep going rather than wait for them to catch up. A bit of distance and some time to think felt good.
We arrived at the border at around 11am and were greeted with the friendliness we have come to expect from people in this part of the world. The Liberian border officials could not have helped us more. They refused to stamp us out of the country!
This may not sound helpful but in fact it was incredibly so. ´The Cote D´Ivoire border is closed´ they said, ´do you have the relevant paperwork?´ ´Yes we do´ we replied and waved our Laissez-Passer at them. They smiled and nodded but still they wouldn´t stamp us out until we knew we could get in the other side. Few people get across successfully and if they stamped us out of their country we could be stuck in no-mans land unable to re-enter Liberia without a new visa.
So they returned our passports unstamped, allowing us to still technically be in Liberia, and walked us across the bridge into Cote D´Ivoire to speak to the officials there. Liberia speaks English, Cote D´Ivoire French, so we were back into frustrating communication issues. The Liberian official explained to the Cote D´Ivoire official that James and I needed to cross with our vehicle, that we had visas and a Laissez-Passer and requested that they allow us through.
I won´t go into too much detail about what happened over the next three hours but the officials went from a point-blank no, to the Landrover can pass but not us, then I could go with the Landrover but not James then eventually – after James won them over with his human-touch and brilliant smile – we were all allowed in. It cost us 2 beers for the Liberian guys and 3 for the Cote D´Ivoire guys but only after we had been stamped in and were on our way – a bribe after the fact feels so much more like a thank you don´t you think?
Either way, we were just pleased to be on our way – but we first had to remember to return to the Liberian side to be stamped out! I wonder what would have happened if we hadn´t, being officially in two countries at once….
Part way through all this the truck had turned up. Everyone was told to stay on board on the Liberian side in the blistering heat whilst Steve did exactly as we had done and went over to talk to Cote D´Ivoire. With 18 people on board he seemed to be having even more trouble than we had. He sat and waited and waited.
Concerned that being tied up with them could reduce our chances of getting through we had diligently avoided eye contact with him and made no sign that we were with him or even knew him. To his eternal credit Steve responded likewise and simply watched quietly whilst we were stamped in and sent on our way.
Having paid our beer tokens and with all relevant passport and carnet stamps in place we contemplated what to do next. We could wait for the truck but if they were allowed to pass through at all who knows how long it would take. If they were turned away it was a 2 day drive back to Monrovia to negotiate new paperwork then 2 days back to the border. We were in a new country and so had no access to the internet until we could get to a town to buy a new SIM card – so there was no way of even communicating with them.
Ultimately we decided the only sensible option was to get to the nearest town of Man some 4 hours away before it got dark, find a hotel and wait until the morning to buy a SIM card so we could at least try to get in touch with them. They would have the same communication issues as us and there had been no internet signal since we left Monrovia. Therefore we were conscious that it could be days before we could get in touch again – they would either need to get through the border, make it to Man and get SIM cards or they would be turned away and have to drive many hours before getting close enough to Monrovia to regain internet signal.
So off we went. Driving through a new country entirely on our own and unsure as to whether or when we would meet up with the truck again. We started smiling to each other, there was a distinct sense of release…..
Our first challenge was actually getting out of the border town. With the border closed to traffic, the road had become a market! People, wheelbarrows and umbrellas had to be moved out of the way to allow us to pass through.
It took nearly an hour to travel about 500m. We heard a few mutterings about tourists but a smile, wave and a thank you went a long way.
We arrived in Man at around 6pm just as dusk was settling in. With no internet we were limited in how to find a hotel. Man itself is a large town, typical of most towns around west Africa – dusty, low rise, noisy, confusing. Our sat nav had some hotels listed on it and the offline mapping app Maps.me, recently one of our go-to sources of navigation, had some others. No reviews or ratings, no information on them at all in fact, just pot luck. We chose the Hotel CAA but getting to it was our next challenge – the roads our sat navs told us to go down were chock-a-block with people and market stalls. We went in ever increasing circles before finally finding a road we could get down.
When we eventually arrived, we found the hotel itself was ok. Clean, friendly, ensuite showers and toilets and cheap. But it was New Year´s Eve and we wanted slightly more than that for the special occasion. Our choices were limited though so I was going to book in. Before I did, I asked whether we could eat there – we were slightly out of town and up a hill, we didn´t fancy trying to walk anywhere for food at this late hour and risking not finding anywhere at all.
´No food here´ she replied, ´you will need to go to the Hotel Cascade for dinner´. I enquired where that was and she pointed further up the hill. ´Hang on´ I shouted to James, who was waiting with the Landrover, and dashed onto the street to hike up the hill and see whether we could get a table before making any decisions.
The Hotel Cascade was rather further up the hill than I had anticipated but when I finally arrived, hot and sweaty, it was worth the effort. By European standards it was an ugly, fairly basic hotel, by west African standards it was 5 star luxury! Large, airy reception, dining room, pool with dining tables set out around it, I could hardly believe my eyes. I enquired how much a room was and was thrilled to find it was only around €80 a night – and they had a table available at their special New Year´s dinner that evening.
I ran back down to the other hotel, jumped into the Landrover and said to James ´come on, we´re going´!
Half an hour later we were all checked in, comfortable, happy, clean and cool in the air con. The fate of the truck was something we could worry about tomorrow, we had a party to go to! Gin and tonic was drunk in the room, the cleanest clothes we owned were donned and we headed down to the restaurant and our pool side table for our New Year´s Eve celebrations.
We spent the next 3 hours in fits of laughter. We ordered our three courses off the fixed price menu as requested, along with a bottle of white wine. Firstly the waiter brought all three courses at the same time – avocado mousse, fillets of steak with dauphinoise potatoes and fruit salad with cake all crammed in together on the little table going cold! ´What are you doing?´ I exploded at the waiter in exasperation! He didn´t speak a word of English and appeared to have no idea what the problem was – James thought he´d need a lot of counselling after I´d finished with him!
He then came back, rather nervously, to tell us they didn´t sell white wine – Vin Blanc as I had written down for him. I stomped up to the bar, bought a bottle of white wine and plonked it down on the table. He smiled vaguely at me and wandered off, none the wiser as to what on earth this stroppy white woman was annoyed about!
But the annoyance wasn´t real, we giggled the whole time. Even when the dauphinoise potatoes in our posh restaurant were served in a take-away tin and the expensive white wine was only half a step up from vinegar!
We were treated to a local dance and a crooning singer barely in key who was so into his song at our table he appeared to fall over. I jumped up to try and catch him only to find he was actually just ducking and diving with the emotion of it all! More giggles….
Some other westerners got up and started dancing. Just don´t get me started, I think rather a lot of alcohol was involved and we had tears streaming down our faces.
But eventually we had to admit that our party days are well and truly over and the new year was seen in to gentle snoring in bed whilst I was half woken by sounds of fireworks and cheers but not awake enough to bother going to the window to see it all happen.
We lazed around in our air conditioned room until late the next morning then dragged ourselves out into the heat to secure a SIM card and some cash. Cash was easy, SIM card was a challenge but one which we solved with the usual help of the locals. We also managed to get James´ IPhone screen replaced after it had got smashed a few days earlier. We were rocking and rolling.
But even with the new SIM card in place all we heard from the truck was a deathly silence…
We decided to check out of the hotel entirely just in case but fully expected to be returning that night. Man is a fairly mundane town but set in beautiful surroundings. The main attractions are the mountains where people come for the hiking and views.
We were heading off for a relaxing day out driving to the top of the highest peak, Mount Topki with no real idea how far we could get even in a Landrover – but it was a bit of fun.
As we headed out of town on the main road we turned a corner and saw a large, orange truck coming towards us full of grinning tourists! I yelped and put my hands to my face in surprise, pointing out of the windscreen. James was concentrating on avoiding the mad traffic and it took him a second to see what I was looking at. Once we were both over the shock we pulled over and I jumped out waving enthusiastically at Steve. We were reunited at last…..
Steve was keen to get to Abidjan, the economic capital of Cote D´Ivoire, as soon as possible to start working on more visas and the delays were starting to mount up putting their Nigerian visa dates under increasing pressure. So he told us they weren´t staying in Man but rather heading out at 3pm for the next stop at the political capital, Yamassoukro. We had a choice – fall back in with following them or call an end to it all there and then. We decided to fall back in with them, we weren´t ready to say goodbye to the team just yet.
So Mount Topki was off the itinerary, instead we drove to a small but pretty waterfall just on the outskirts of town.
It had obviously been beautiful once but was long past its hey day now – as so much seems to be in this part of the world.
But we were treated to some cute little monkeys hanging around the entrance….
We then headed back to meet up with whoever we could find for lunch before setting off on the next leg of the adventure.
Within 15 minutes of meeting up with the group our light heartedness and smiles were gone. We were dragged back down into the misery that had engulfed us all over the last couple of weeks. We drove along behind the truck in silence, staring out of the windscreen.
New Year´s Day appears to be quite a celebration in Cote D´Ivoire. Initially we had assumed that the country was far, far more prosperous and the people generally well dressed and affluent, but after a while we realised that in fact they were all dressed up in their posh frocks for the festivities. Music was everywhere, people were parading along the streets, children were excited in their party dresses – and they looked gorgeous!
We were never going to make it all the way to Yamassoukro in one afternoon but suitable bush camps were few and far between along that road. Eventually Steve pulled up on a patch of land that had clearly been levelled for future resurfacing. Not ideal but there was enough space for us all so everyone set about pitching tents, setting up the fire and preparing dinner.
A local man stopped by to talk, but it soon became clear he was very unhappy. He went off to bring the town Chief. It transpired we were on sacred ground and whilst they didn´t mind the camping too much the fire was an insult to their ancestors. Eventually, an agreement was come to that a cleansing ceremony would be held and a large amount of cash would change hands.
In any event the locals got their own back – New Year´s Day is a day, and a night, of celebration. Music, dancing and laughter went on all around us until 7am. Most people didn´t sleep a wink. I liked the music and felt they had the right to do whatever they pleased in their own town, so I slept like a baby….
We arrived in Yamassoukro late the next morning. The main attraction that we had come here to see was the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, built in the 1980s by the previous President to memorialise himself, gifted to the Vatican and listed in the Guiness Book of Records as the largest church in the world. And it was beautiful….but closed!
It reopened at 2:30pm so all was not lost. After some hanging around whilst everyone was confused as to what we were doing, we eventually headed into the city centre to have lunch and wait.
Yamassoukro is actually a very nice city. Wide, clean, tree lined avenues, the Presidential Palace, very little traffic. I actually found myself warming to it.
It was roasting hot as usual and motivation levels were low. So we spent the couple of hours we had filling Henry up with fuel and water and hanging around the fuel station shop in the shade drinking cous cous yogurts drinks and chatting with some of the group. Somehow, rushing around trying to explore yet another city, lovely as it was, held limited appeal.
When we finally arrived back at the Basilica we were all blown away by its size and beauty. We had seen nothing like it since first setting foot in west Africa.
We had a fabulous guide who took us on a tour and was so earnest in his descriptions of the bible and the saints, it brought the whole thing to life.
That night the campsite Steve had hoped to find turned out to be a figment of Google´s imagination so, reading the mood of the group, he found us a nice hotel to stay in for the night rather than dragging us all off for another bush camp with no showers. It was clean and comfortable and had the desired effect of cheering everyone up.
Two of the group were leaving in Abidjan for reasons very similar to ours. They could fly over Ghana and meet the truck later but had long since lost faith in the tour and had decided to quit whilst they were at least slightly ahead. So that evening, cool and clean, we all went to a Pizzeria restaurant, 10 people piled into two taxis, all sitting on each others knees! It was a great meal and another fitting farewell. A good night´s sleep was had by everyone.
The next day the truck was due to depart at 7am and head for Abidjan. At 7am James and I were luxuriating in a lie-in with no intention whatsoever of joining them. The time had come, the apron strings needed cutting and we had our scissors enthusiastically at the ready.
Whilst the truck and the group on board were heading for a campsite on the outskirts of Abidjan we had booked into the Ibis hotel in the centre of the business district. It was close to the shipping agents and the Port as well as numerous restaurants.
We heard from the others that the truck took over four hours to reach the city, having been stopped at numerous police checkpoints and stuck in traffic for miles on the outskirts. We hadn´t been looking forward to more city traffic but had somehow managed to get within 8km of the Ibis in an hour and a half and still going strong. In fact it had been a dream journey – well tarmaced roads, dual carriageway with central reservation, a world away from what we had become used to and feeling almost like we were back in Europe.
James was driving. At the 8km point he said something wasn´t right with Henry´s steering. He waggled the steering wheel in each direction and looked intently at it. Just then, Bang! Something hit the side of the Landrover and made us both jump out of our skin. If the steering had been bad before it was really bad now, Henry was veering all over the place.
We pulled over on the edge of the dual carriageway. No hard shoulder, lorries and cars speeding past frighteningly close. James hopped out and looked around, a cloud passed over his face – puncture. And on the off side as well, couldn´t have been worse.
We were quite pleased we´d bought the second triangle all over again!
James set to work, in the middle of the traffic – I wasn´t allowed to come out from behind the bollards! As always, people stopped by to try and help.
James spent more time taking the tools off them and asking them to let him do it than he did actually doing it! After a few minutes they realised he had it under control and so sat and watched. After a few more minutes they got bored and left.
Half an hour after the first wobble the spare was on and we were back on the road. Fifteen minutes after that we spotted a garage on the side of the road with stacks of tyres outside and an hour after that the puncture was repaired, the wheel back on and we were heading for the Ibis.
We even found the culprit – it must have got stuck in the wheel causing the initial steering problem then flicked up and into the tyre. We had been very, very lucky….
It had all been so traumatic for poor Henry we treated him to a wash – the Landrover equivalent of a lollypop! He hadn´t looked so smart in months, just ready to visit our smart city centre hotel!
As we headed into the city it became apparent that this place was very different from any other town or city we had visited to date in west Africa. It was very westernised. Hotels, restaurants, shopping malls. We hadn´t seen anything like it for months, we could have been back in Spain. The traffic was busy and chaotic but manageable. If we had to be stuck anywhere this was looking like a very good option.
The Ibis itself wasn´t up to the standards of the Ibis in Dakar but it was cool, clean and safe – and it did great breakfasts! There were three or four security guards outside with guns and bullet-proofs vests. They even checked the underside of Henry with mirrors before allowing us to enter the secure parking area.
Guards needing guns and bullet-proof vests never make me feel safe and comfortable but as we got to know them over the next week we found them to be friendly, helpful young guys who loved the Landrover and gave us cookies.
Once checked in we met up with the two others from the group who had also left the trip and walked out to a nearby shopping mall. I´m not the world´s biggest fan of shopping malls but found a store selling the special Clinique moisturiser I use on my face and which I had run out of three weeks earlier. I bought three bottles costing €85 to James´ immense distress but spent the rest of the day talking about it and grinning from ear to ear! Small things….
We woke up the next morning to a mixture of excitement and distress. Texts had come through early from the group….the Ghanaian embassy had agreed to give us visas and a Laissez-Passer to cross the border! Woo hoo!! The answer to all our prayers, our trip could continue with the group!
Oh god, our trip could continue with the group…..
If we wanted to be included in the application we needed to get copies of passport pages, cash to pay for the visa and be at the embassy in an hour and a half. We were in bed, hadn´t had breakfast or showers and had no copies of the Cote D´Ivoire visa page in our passports. The morning would be yet another frantic rush, the embassy was miles away through heavy city centre traffic….and did we want to go into Ghana at all?
Breakfast was tense and tetchy. Neither of us wanted to continue our travels with the truck, there had been far too many mistakes, no organisation or planning and now misery and bitterness building within the group itself. But we had no Plan B. We had been trying to communicate with shipping agents for two weeks and had no response. We didn´t know whether we would get anywhere at all with our plans to ship never mind have any idea of costs. All well and good when you have no Plan A, you just get on with it as best you can, but now Plan A had been laid in front of us, was it wise to turn it down?
We decided to go ahead and apply for the visas. If nothing else it gave us options. We could carry on with the group, travel overland on the same route solo or continue with our plans to ship. We would be spending €200 on visas which could ultimately be wasted but it would give us choices – and choices is what we desperately needed right now.
James pulled a blinder by remembering we were in a business hotel so asked them to do our photocopying for us – which they did there and then saving us at least an hour of wandering around the city looking for a photocopying shop. So we ended up arriving at the Ghana embassy in plenty of time to meet the rest of the group. We diligently filled in our forms, walked up to the bank to get the cash and were ready to submit within the hour.
Not so much the rest of the group. We waited two and a half hours outside the embassy in the sweltering heat before all the application forms were ready to go. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go so I spent the time going through all 27 shipping agents operating in Abidjan. Those that had no website or telephone number were discarded, those who had mobile numbers were called on Whatsapp and spoken to and everyone else was emailed. By the time the Ghana visas were submitted I had five agents actively working on our quote and another three emailed and waiting for a response. We also had an agent in Cape Town recommended by an overlanding friend who was proving invaluable – holding our hands and guiding us through the whole complex, confusing process.
Things were looking up.
We drove half an hour from the embassy to a launderette to get some much-needed washing done. Two loads had been put into the machines and we were settling in with our books to wait. Just then a text popped up on the group message chat. A message from Steve. I will repeat it in full here :
Just had a call from Ghana embassy. The boss man has vetoed our visa and permit so back to square one. We can go and reclaim our passports and maybe our money…..
We stared at each other not knowing whether to laugh or cry. After a few minutes we realised that we couldn´t let Steve collect our passports as they were camping miles away from us out of town and we were unlikely to see them again. So James jumped in the Landrover and headed back to the Ghana embassy at breakneck speed to head them off, leaving me with my book and our washing!
Once back at the Ghana embassy, Steve, and now James, were left waiting for the Amabassador to return and hand back our documents. After a while James became concerned about me stuck out on the other side of town with no transport and no way to contact each other (the only downside of using a Wifi Hotspot to connect all our gadgets is that if we are not together only one of us has internet access). So he whizzed back to the launderette, picked me and our now clean clothes up and we both headed back to the embassy.
I literally had to force my way into the room where Steve and two others from the group were talking to the Ambassador, at this stage we had lost all confidence in the team to make any sensible decisions. As I walked in the Ambassador was agreeing to wait for one of the group to contact a lawyer she knew in Accra who would talk to the Minister to try to persuade him to agree to giving us visas and permits. Steve looked dubious.
The Ambassador then enquired as to how we planned to exit Ghana with the Togo and Benin borders being closed. I felt like a complete fool – we had never even checked! Steve and the lady with the lawyer contact nodded sagely and smiled. ´So far as we are aware´, they said, ´the borders are open, there will be no problem´.
So far as we are aware?? They hadn´t been aware that the Cote D´Ivore borders were closed. Nor the Ghana borders. Had anyone actually checked??
I wasn´t going to say all this in front of the Ambassador so I excused myself saying I needed to update James and ran to the waiting room whispering to him – ´Togo may be closed and probably Benin, quick, check their government websites´. It won´t surprise you at all to hear that indeed both borders have been closed since the start of the pandemic and have no plans to reopen. It took us 30 seconds to find this out. We should have checked sooner….someone should have checked sooner.
When we dragged Steve out of the embassy and told him what we had discovered he looked tired…..
Needless to say the lawyer never did contact the Minister and no visas or permits were granted. We retrieved our passports and even got our money back the next day. The truck was instructed by head office to go to the Ghana border the day after.
We drove out to their campsite that evening to say goodbye. We weren´t about to embark on an 8 hour round trip from Abidjan to the Ghana border with no visas, no Laissez-Passer and no PCR test. Eight other people from the group felt the same way and had decided to remain in Abidjan to await the truck´s return. Only seven people were planning to go to the border.
But regardless of people´s decisions, by the next day everyone would either be successfully through the border in Ghana or in the air flying to Togo, Benin or Ghana (yes, you can fly in but not drive in!) or on their way to Burkina Faso. So we were unlikely to see any of them again.
We had a lovely evening, we had one last truck meal with everyone (which brought the stomach issues straight back the next day!), lots of hugs and goodbyes – and James even got a round of applause when Steve thanked him for fixing the truck (three times) and both his and everyone else´s stuff as and when things broke – he had been holding surgeries for the team for weeks, mending tents, torches, pumps, you name it!
As we headed back to the hotel that evening it felt as though a chapter of our lives was ending. It had been fun, no-one could say it wasn´t eventful, and we had made some good friends along the way. Saying goodbye to the people we had lived so closely with for over two months was sad beyond words. Leaving a chaotic, disorganised, seemingly doomed trip felt like getting our feet back on firm ground after wading through treacle for far too long…..
The truck was turned away at the Ghana border and headed into Burkina Faso the next day. This was just the start of a whole new adventure for the five people on board.
In the meantime we settled into Abidjan life and started planning the long road to Cape Town….