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Overlanding West Africa: a driver’s tale


Hi everybody!

We’re currently in Grand Bassam, approx 30kms east of the capital Abidjan, and having a couple of relaxing days on the beach just along from the old colonial quarter. It’s quite odd being back on the ‘tourist trail’ after so many weeks away from it. Well, we say tourist trail, the thing is, there are none around. The recent civil war in Ivory Coast has had a severe impact upon visitor numbers to the country….there are still expats and NGOs hovering around, but haven’t really seen any other travellers at all.

Well, where to start?! It’s been an incredible few weeks since we last posted. We left Freetown in the midst of election fever. The city was buzzing with support for Dr Ernest, and we now know he has since won the election. Every day and every night we were in the country felt like a carnival, some kind of rally going on for one political party or another. We were held up in Freetown for a bit longer than planned, mainly due to a diplomatic spat between the UK and Guinea……so of course the Guineans refused to issue the Brits with visas. Ah, bit of a problem there, we had 5 Brits on the trip, and both the drivers were also UK passport holders. So for 3 days, yes 3 days, Hatter went back and forth between the British High Commission and the Guinean embassy to massage egos, kiss ass, and generally plead our case. Eventually the issue which caused the problem in the first place (can’t really talk about it here!) was defused, and we had our visas, HOORAY!

So with visas in our passports, we headed north to Kabala, set close to the beautiful Wara Wara mountain range. It just so happened that the President was due in on the same day as us, so we followed his motorcade for some of the way there, and were treated to his helicopter landing in the town the following afternoon. Some of the passengers went to see his rally on the local football pitch, election fever was in the air! The views of the surrounding mountains were stunning, and many thanks to the Oxfam team for allowing us to camp in their compound. Sierra Leone still has a long way to go before it is ready for organised tourism, but for us overlanders a patch of grass and a toilet was all we needed, cheers guys!

From Kabala we headed down to Tiwai Island, and wow, what a drive it was. At first the road from Bo to Potoru was pretty good tar, then it abruptly ended and turned into washed out dirt. After Potoru, the road became very narrow, barely suited to a motorbike but we squeezed Aminah through regardless as we found ourselves driving through dense vegetation. Once we arrived at the river side village, the heavens opened up (AGAIN!)……so 1/2 hour waiting for the rain to relent, and we crossed onto the island on speed boat. The next day we all went on nature walks and boat rides, and saw a variety of wildlife, including the rare Diana monkey (which pissed on our heads at one stage!). A big thanks to all the Tiwai Island staff and the villagers on the other side for making us feel so welcome!

From Tiwai we headed to Kenema for a couple of days. The town is described as about far west as the diamond diggers will venture and about as far east as the diamond dealers will go. So you can imagine there were heaps of shops acting as go betweens to sell their precious stones. We stayed at the Catholic mission on the entrance to town, a beautiful place set amongst rolling grass fields and trees, Father Augustine was a great host. When he saw the truck, he read out the names of all the countries listed along the side and then exclaimed “Jesus Christ!”….most amusing! From here we drove all the way back to Guinea for a visa run in the capital Conakry.

The next stage of the journey saw us head back towards the stunning Fouta Djalon region from where we headed east into the Forest region. This is where the roads started to deteriorate, slowing our progress down. Arriving into Faranah late, we saw the Presidential airstrip in the distance….built sometime in the 1980s we think, Faranah was Tourre’s home town so he had an airstrip built capable of taking a Concorde! Well, we saw a track leading to it so turned off and bushcamped there for the night! Our journey continued through the Forest region via Kissidougou, Gueckadou, Macenta, and Nzerekore. All along the way we tried to find the elusive lliana bridges (made from vines). After 4 or 5 failed attempts, we struck gold! Alot of them no longer exist as the new roads that have sprung up in places mean people no longer maintain them so they fall into disrepair and are lost for good. However, perseverance paid off and we found one! It took us about an hour of trekking through the forest to get there, but when we did it was worth it, and the locals are still using it to this day to get produce around the forest region, superb!

Leaving the Forest region, we headed into the lush tropical jungle that borders Ivory Coast and Guinea. We made a slight detour towards Liberia to visit the wild chimpanzees. A beautiful spot not far from Mount Nimba, we camped in the grounds of the research station. The next morning we were up early and ushered through the forest to see the chimps in their natural habitat. After 45 minutes or so, one of the big males appeared and crossed right in front of us, before clambering up a tree. After a while he was joined by another 3 adults. It was a real treat to see them, and we spent a good hour or more watching them in the tress above, a real highlight for all of us. It’s not really meant for tourists strictly speaking, it is a research centre where people study the behaviour of this particular group and how they interact with the surrounding villages. So we were very fortunate to be allowed to visit.

A road in the Guinea highlandsNow the adventure started! People talk of the great overland journeys, and both Jimmy and Hatter, and many in the group who are currently travelling with us, are fortunate to have done some of them (crossing Mongolia, the Silk Route, Cairo to Cape Town, Loops of South America etc)…..but one that just has to be done by people is the crossing from Guinea into Ivory Coast. It is BEAUTIFUL! It’s remote, the roads are awful at times, but the people are SO friendly, and the landscapes stunning. It took us about 2 days from Lola to get to Danane, bushcamping en route at the immigration post between the 2 countries. You see everything from traditional African villages, to mud roads, mountains shrouded in steamy mist, dense jungle and forest, and rickety old bridges. One of which was broken, and had been for 2 years, so everybody who could had to ford the river. Alas, just 30 mins before we got to the fording point, the heavens opened up and it POURED! So there was a huge volume of water flowing into the river, and the entry and exit points became a slippery greasy nightmare from all the mud. After 1/2 hour or so of putting rocks down for traction and bamboo, Aminah took the plunge down a steep ravine and swam through the river to the other side, GO AMINAH!

West African road and overland truckOnce through the worst of the roads (that diff lock and crawler gear came in very handy at times!), we popped out onto the tarmac in Danane, from where we headed north. What a treat awaited us, We turned off on the dirt for 12 kms or so and found one of the villages that is famous for it’s stilt dancers. We approached the old wise men of the village, 4 of them in total, who in fact looked so old we suspect they were at least 100 years old! They agreed to us pitching camp in the village, and one of the younger men walked to the top of the hill and chanted in the local language at the top of his voice to call the men in from the forest to perform a dance for us all. And what a dance it was! For 90 minutes or so, we were treated to one of the best ceremonies/dances most of us have ever seen, all set amongst the surrounding forest and mountains, in the most beautiful picture postcard village you could ask for, check out the pictures, it was such a great evening of festivities!

The next morning, we handed out some of the supplies we had bought for the kids. In aid of ‘MOVEMBER’, everybody on the truck donated some money in return for the lads growing a moustache for the month of November. With the money the group bought pens, exercise books, geometry sets, footballs, chalk etc, and decided to give it out to various schools as we headed through the West and North of Ivory Coast. Having had such a great time in the village where we saw the dancers, the group decided to give some of the supplies to the village school……below are some of the lads with some of the village by Aminah just after we gave them the supplies. The other picture is of us handing over a load of boxes we brought with us on the roof of Aminah from Alet Les Bains, France. These boxes were for the CREER project, run by Chloe Grant, a foundation being set up to help children in Cote D’Ivoire. CREER is now moving along at a fast pace, and we hope to visit them in their new buildings next time we pass through!

Heading north the roads deteriorated again, and it took us a while to reach Korhogo, where some of the group went off to climb Mt Korhogo, whilst others visited the artisan villages surrounding the town to see the weavers, jewellery makers, and wood workers ply their trades. Some just sat by the swimming pool all day, a great chance to kick back and unwind after a crazy journey into the country from Guinea. Now on good tarmac (well, reasonable tarmac!), we headed to the weird and wonderful de facto capital of Yamoussoukro, and paid a visit to the Basilica….what a sight it was too! Modelled on St Peters in Rome, it sits amongst green jungle scenery. Though highly controversial due to its cost, you can not help but be impressed by the craftsmanship that went into the construction of such a beautiful building.

From Yam we headed south to the coast for a few nights in the old colonial ex-capital of Grand Bassam……lots of crumbling old colonial buildings right on the seafront, a perfect way to refresh ourselves before the final leg of this particular trip as we head into Ghana tomorrow. It’s been an awesome journey, one that everybody who loves real overlanding should experience. Though not easy, and indeed challenging at times, it has been an immensely rewarding journey, and one we will never forget! More updates to follow from Ghana next week, stay tuned, and keep following our progress via our Facebook page there are LOADS more photos on there of what we have been up to, enjoy!

More by this author and Overlanding West Africa on their website.

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