Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ode to an Irishman!

I've been lax of late, still not finished the whole Franki debacle but this weekend knocked me for six.  This isn't an ode, it's not a poem, but this is my blog and it's saying goodbye to a great Irishman.

Stephen Keenan died on Saturday in the Blue Hole, in Dahab, Egypt.  Steve was an amazing guy, we've kept in contact for 10 years after travelling together after a chance meeting.  He was open, honest, laid back and loyal to his friends.  He had a heart of gold, always looked for the positives, didn't take any stick from anyone and he loved the Dubs!

He had a wanderlust, like so many of us, it took him to South America then onto Africa which is where we met.  People have been asking me where we met, I nicknamed him BBB, short for Bissau Brothel Boy, we met in a brothel in the Caracol district of Bissau.  A pretty horrendous area of town, we later discovered that it was a hive of activity for crack cocaine and the evening wasn't the most calm I've had in my travels!  As described in my 2006/2007 trip to the region it wasn't as though we had much choice in Bissau but to sleep here and by pure chance Steve also decided to find a room at the same place, considering we'd not seen another European since Senegal, it was a surprise to meet him.  Steve took a photo of one of the rooms the following morning, it was awful and always said to me, his mother should never find out that he was forced to stay in this lousy hellhole, he also described it as a 'Gentleman's Club' hmmm!

Commandering a boat to the Bijagos with the Bubaque Chief of Police

I'm telling this story now because I don't want to forget some fun memories, often dangerous but Steve took the brunt of the danger.  We crossed the border into Guinea separately, we'd separated in the UNESCO protected Bijagos Islands, I headed back to Bissau, he went onto another island, Orango famous for it's saltwater hippos where he wanted to swim with them.  From Bissau I went onto the Guinea Conakry border with my Italian friend Gianni who also thought the world of Steve.  He was a few days behind us but we were in contact.  When we got to the Fouta Djalon region of Guinea there were strikes against President Conte, the Guinean President of that time.  The country had a major fuel crisis and things were getting desperate, I decided to head into Senegal as my flight left from Dakar, Gianni went south to Conakry to carry on eastbound, Steve was still somewhere in the west of Guinea.

Steve Keenan RIP - on Bubaque, he loved water, died doing what he loved

On arriving home in France I got frantic messages from Steve, he was near Donka Bridge area of Conakry and there was gunfire all around.  Power outages were getting worse and his mobile phone battery was getting lower but could I help him?  I rang the Irish Embassy in Paris, declaring his situation but it was a weekend, the consular official on duty was a saint, he rang the Foreign Affairs office in Dublin who subsequently called Steve to check on his safety and make arrangements for him.  Sunday morning, Steve was calmly having a cup of tea with the British Consul having made it across town in the chaos with the Consul waiting at his front door for him. He made it across into Sierra Leone the next morning, from memory.  An excerpt of an e-mail:

"In Freetown myself - got here last night after aother fucking shocker of a trip. Should of been 6 hours but due to a wreck of a car took 13! Left Conakry at 9 nd arrived here around 10 a broken man, covered in dust and smelling of diesel.. 

Sent you a text, not sure if you got it. Anyway I should be overjoyed and happy to be here but truthfully I'm not - I'm sad to have left Guinea behind and my heart aches thinking about all my friends I became so attached to while stuck in Conakry. That's one reason I hate staying in places for more that a few days - you can create relationships that become so hard to walk away from. Just hope things work out for them.

Anyway the reality is that I got out of there with my life and all my stuff, which might well of not been the case - so that, and all your help, I'm extremely grateful for. Thanks"


I got regular texts and e-mails from him telling me about his journey and experiences in Sierra Leone and horrendous journey down the coastal road in Liberia.  Then he got to Cote d'Ivoire, describing Abidjan as somewhere like Europe, reminded him of a few South American cities he had been to.  He was due to meet his father and brother in Bamako, they were flying in from Dublin and it was clear he was very excited about having some of his family with him.  He sent an e-mail to me protesting at the cost of a bus to Bamako at 40,000CFA (price has dropped considerably since then!) and was off to find other options.  He obviously went back to the bus company as I was getting text messages telling me how he had bought a seat but there was a big argument between the driver and the bus station chief that he couldn't understand and he kept being told to get off the bus.  Finally I got a text telling me he was en route for Bamako, but had to get through the northern part of Cote d'Ivoire which at that point was controlled by the Forces Nouvelles, the 'rebel' army.  His texts went dead for over 48hours, I was concerned but had no way of contacting him.  This an e-mail arrived a few days later explaining the silence after the few texts I'd received when he was free:

"I have just reached Mali, having made my way from Abidjan in Ivory coast to Bamako, Mali's capital. In doing so I had to cross the rebel controlled north of Ivory coast - this trip was without doubt my most perilous, taking 3 days and included 15 hours locked up in a cell with 14 other Ivorians and, thank God, one Dutchman.... The rebels imprisoned me.
Ivory coast has been in the grips of civil war since 2002. The south of the country is controlled by the government and the north by the rebels or "New Forces" as they call themselves. However in recent months things have calmed somewhat. I crossed into the south from Liberia about 2 weeks ago. Lots of military checkpoints and a few bribes but other than that it was alright. I asked a few people about crossing the rebel controlled north - almost all said it was fine that the war was almost over and I had nothing to worry about. So I decided to risk it and get the direct bus Abidjan - Bamako. We pulled out of Abidjan Saturday morning and headed north accompanied by  military vehicle. We reached the Gov/rebel divide at about 7. There was an army checkpoint, then UN checkpoint, then about 20k of no man's land, another UN checkpoint after which we entered Bouake, Ivory Coast's second largest city and headquarters of the rebels. We were all told to descend the bus and hand our Identity papers over. I was the only white guy. The rebels brought us into a large room where one of them stood up and addressed us all. He said who they were, their purpose and that there would be some payment necessary depending on the length of each passengers trip. I felt reasonably relaxed but then as he was speaking another rebel went through the ID papers, found mine, and put it aside indicated to someone that I was to be kept or something like that - I was standing too far away to hear. They began to give back the ID cards and the hall emptied till it was just myself standing in front of 6 seated rebels.
They asked me the purpose of my voyage, what I did, etc. One guy was quite aggressive and asked me how long I had been in the army - I said I was never in the army and that in Ireland it was not obligatory. he shrugged this off as if I was lying. They then summoned the bus driver and told him to carry on as I was to be held for more questioning. My heart sank, I so just wanted to get back on that bus. I pleaded with them and one of them said that the questioning wouldn't last long and that as the bus was stopping anyway for something to eat I will be back on it no worries. I had to get my bag off the bus. A pick up arrived with armed rebels in the back and PCO written on the side (Not sure what it stands for but it's seems to be their title). So I was driven off to the rebel headquarters, a large compound with big iron gate, and brought into an office where sat a slight man wearing a traditional Muslim robe. Behind him on the wall were photographs of various rebels and pictures of some guy called Bele Bele. Beside him was a chart with various lapel tags attached and their corresponding rank written alongside.
He began asking me similar questions as before, all was going well and I was hopeful I'd be back on the bus. I was devastated when he put my passport in his pocket and said I was to be kept there until he got clearance I could pass from "Le Chef". I had to leave all my belongings in the office for inspection. I also had to count all my money and hand it over. He wrote down the quantity and gave me a receipt assuring me I would get it all back. I was allowed keep some small change. I was then marched out into the main yard where a traditional style hut stood - it had a TV inside being watched by 3 dozing rebels and a white man! - I couldn't believe it, I hadn't seen a white person since Abidjan. Also he was a young and looked like a traveller. He was told to come out and then the 2 of us were brought to the back of the compound to a building with an iron gate and people lying around inside, it was a small prison. The rebel brought us inside and over to a vacant corner and told us we were to sleep there, and that he would come for us in the morning. I couldn't believe it - it was Paddy's day, and there I was lying in a cell...
My white companion was a guy called Ernest from Rotterdam, he had made his way to Bouake from Bamako hoping to visit the Medicin Sans Frontiers group stationed there. He was a nurse and was interested in working for them. I was so happy he was there, we kept to ourselves and were generally left alone. The cell was a large L shaped room with 3 smaller cells attached. These small cells were packed - about 15 people in each. In our own big cell I counted 14. Ernest luckily had taken his sleeping bag out of his bag. So we lay on that and I actually managed to get some sleep.
  At sunrise all were up including myself staring out through the bars waiting for someone to come take me out and tell me all is well. Across the far end of the compound I spotted the guy who had takin us into the cell, but I never saw him again. Time rolled on, every hour feeling like 10. We weren't fed, nobody was - they had people come, relatives and friends, with food. Eventually around 11 we decided to ask for a coffee and some bread. One of the guys, a prisoner from Guinea, was allowed leave the compound to purchase food. He came back with 2 bread rolls and 2 cups of coffee, the jailer accompanied he him and said we could eat outside. We were out!, it felt so good to be out of that cell. We sat under a tree for about an hour, then someone from across the compound beckoned us. Great I thought, but my heart sank when he indicated they only wanted to talk to Ernest. So I was alone, but they left me under the tree and thankfully not back into the cell. Ernest was walked to an office building about 500 meters away. He went in the door with 2 men in front and 3 behind him. He must of been in for about 40 minutes, I was getting worried. He came back out looking drained. He told me they asked the same questions over and over. They seemed sure he had a military purpose or something. They were more suspicious of him than I as he had a GPS with him and had a Dutch Army issued backpack. My questioning wasn't so bad, after a while they did believe that all I wanted to do was go to Mali. Ernest got some more hassle until he eventually agreed to leave along with myself. We were free. They put us in a bus along with another rebel to accompany us to the border.
I got off the bus at a town near the border as the bus was going to Burkina. I bid my cell mate goodbye and waited for a bus to Mali -  I was still in rebel country and so wanted to leave - about 2 hours later, 11pm a bus came. It drove for about an hour then stopped at a checkpoint. The rebels left me alone but we were told we were to stay there for the night. We slept on the side of the road and at about 6am we headed off again. Soon in the distance, through the morning Harmattan haze I spotted a Malian flag, the border. I never saw any more rebels. Phew."

Just over a year later, I went to Bouake as an Irishwoman, it was still controlled by the Forces Nouvelles but they weren't too worried about my presence.  I asked around about an Irishman that had been imprisoned a year earlier, they all knew about him, referred to him as my 'comrade' and were confused as to why he'd been imprisoned.  Steve had told me at the time they believed he was a spy ... for who?  The Irish government???!!!  The border town he was taken to was Ouanlangoudou, I remember the text message asking me if I could pronounce it ... I can now!!!  It was good to be there on 30th December in Franki

Steve said he'd always like to return to Cote d'Ivoire, I always hoped he would one day ... he sent a good few texts and e-mails as he made his way through West Africa, adored Nigeria, went up the Congo on barges with his backpack, loved Uganda, Kenya then found Dahab, Egypt where he's been living for the past 8 years and very sadly lost his life on Saturday.  He's had tributes pouring in on an international basis.  Some lovely photos here of the guy who always went home to see the Dubs play at Croke Park where on 5th August there will be a round of applause in his memory during a match at the 39th minute, he died too young at 39 but doing something he loved, a small consolation! Steve, a true hero in various press reports

RIP Steve, you're missed by so so many of us who had the pleasure to meet you!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Capital Goal

Another good night's sleep in a bed for a change, excited to be setting off with the hope that I'd reach my goal of arriving in Yamoussoukro, Cote d'Ivoire's capital city to spend that evening, New Years Eve, with my friends.  I was concerned that the road would be problematic all the way south as I'd heard that it hadn't been upgraded since my last time on this stretch in 2009.  I had 387km to complete today, venturing out of Ouangolodougou the south side of town was a mess with trucks all over.  I soon discovered why, the road to Ferkessedougou was being re-done and had just been completely resurfaced.  Lovely smooth road for 45km to Ferke where I stopped to withdraw some cash and have some breakfast whilst receiving a call from a Moroccan friend Hamza who works in Abengourou and wanted an update on my progress!

Things never change, I'm always too optimistic whilst travelling around Africa in regards to the time it takes to get from one place to the next or the state of the road.  Of course, I left Ferke at 930am with the dream that this smooth road would continue southbound, of course it didn't!  It was a crazy, tiring, zigzag drive all the way to Katiola, 186km of pothole slalom with police and gendarmes stopping me every 15km or so, asking for a chicken to eat, my hand in marriage or just plain paperwork!

Bus from Niamey, Niger - a long tiring drive!

Poor old sheep, sun, exhaust fumes and staying upright with the bumps
Finally I pulled into the southern edge of Katiola, it was about 1pm and I decided I deserved some lunch.  I found a small shaded maquis and parked Franki under a tree.  A young guy was serving a few bits and pieces on the side of the road, ordering some spaghetti with liver I sat in the shade under a mango tree with a drink.

Setting off again, I reached Bouake with a few less potholes, this is where the north/south divide used to be prior to the 2010/2011 crisis.  Initially I came to Bouake in 2008 when the Forces Nouvelles (now the united FRCI) were in charge, getting through 'la corridor' to enter the north on the southern edge of Bouake was always interesting as being white they usually assumed I was French.  Luckily, having an Irish passport made things somewhat easier!  Bouake had grown since my last visit, I was surprised by the change in town and development that had gone on, I drove through fairly quickly, almost able to smell my Yamoussoukro goal now!

Bouake
The road from Bouake was in a similar condition to the Katiola - Bouake road, in relatively good condition until finding a sizeable pothole that could cause serious damage.  I certainly decided I preferred the roads that really slowed you down with gaping potholes.  Driving along this one was hair-raising as it gave drivers confidence to speed along, and then dodge the potholes.  It wasn't much fun at all.  I pulled up in Tiebissou, a small town I've stopped in before, it's the centre of Baoule cloth weaving where there are many stands with cloth for sale.  The cotton is hand loomed on extremely long looms found throughout the village and surrounding area.  It comes in strips, like Kente cloth in Ghana but then sewn together to make one large piece about a metre wide and 1m70 long.  After a bit of negotiation I bought some more and set off south again.


Ridiculous place to take a photo whilst driving!  Should be ashamed of myself!!!
41 kilometres later I finally entered Yamoussoukro, so happy to be back, I was in very slow moving traffic due to the police stopping vehicles ahead of me.  I got my phone out and took a photo of the 'Orange' telecom sign welcoming me to Yakro!  A bit of a stupid move, doing this in full view of the police who of course watched me take it.  I was STOPPED!  

Police:  "Madame, where have you come from?"
Me:  giggling "ummmm" more giggling ... "today or originally"
Police:  Scratching his head trying to work out what drugs this 'blanche' had been taking
Me: "From The Netherlands"
Police: "Alone?  You can't take photos whilst driving in Cote d'Ivoire"
Me:  Still giggling, "sorry but I'm so happy to be here in time for New Years Eve with friends"
Police:  "I should fine you, just go, but Happy New Year Madame"

My welcome into Yakro, I was so elated!!!

I pulled up a few hundred metres later and called PC to ask where he lived.  I was told to wait exactly where I was and he came to find me in his car.  He was in front of Franki less than 2minutes later, massive smiles, screams of joy to see him again, I followed him back to the house.  I caught up with his three children, the smallest of which I hadn't met before, she's a real little character.  His son who was born just after the 2010/2011 crisis, I welcomed in the early hours of the morning when we were part of a group on Twitter and then his older daughter.  Both his son and older daughter I'd met before, but his son was about 3 years old last time and petrified of me, he hadn't met a 'blanche' before and we had all had a good giggle in their old apartment in Abidjan in 2013!


New Ivorian beer, made from rice, brewed by Heineken
PC - to who I owe a lot over the years, a true friend!
After a decent shower, some clean clothes and my sandals a little cleaner, PC took me out to a maquis nearby.  He bought me an Ivoire, a new beer on the market that seems to be doing remarkably well.  We sat and talked for ages whilst Irene, his wife, was on her way back from shopping.  I was so happy to be back with them all.  Returning to the house, they got ready to go to church, I was left in charge of the house, with the keys.  I curled up on their sofa watching TV, the air conditioning on feeling thoroughly spoilt and promising to be awake when they got back ... I fell asleep.  They returned from church and spent quite some time trying to wake me up, finally PC managed to wake me with a phone call, I was a very embarassed house guest!!!

By 1am we were out again, at PC's maquis Restaurant Alie-Fe near the centre of town with his business partner and other friends.  A long night with too many bottles on the table by 4am, I had a very sound sleep for the rest of the night!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Final border

Franki at The Sleeping Camel

A restful night at The Sleeping Camel I got up to have a warm shower and coffee.  Phil was already working and hoping to finally introduce me to his wife and new son. Sitting, sipping endless cups of coffee with him and Jeff, a UN aviation consultant, we chatted for what seemed like hours.  I was getting more than aware that time was marching on and I should be hitting the road south.

The aim was to get into Cote d'Ivoire today, it was Friday 30th December 2016 and I could see my goal of spending New Years Eve in Yamoussoukro with friends being accomplished!  I had to unfortunately bid goodbye though, but not before Phil refused to let me pay my bill, too kind of him!  I had missed meeting Bintou and Andre who I hope I'll meet in the near future.  I drove back out onto the main road to find someone to check the tyre pressure.

Getting out of Bamako was straightforward, I knew the road well as far south as Ouelessebougou and once out of the chaos of Bamako and nearby dormitory towns, the road was smooth sailing. In  Ouelessebougou it was obviously market day, driving through teems of people along the road selling their wares.  After Bougouni the road was quieter until eventually I pulled into Sikasso without stopping, covering 368km by around 1.30pm, I was happy with our progress. I had ideally wanted to go to the bus station and talk to people there about children being trafficked southbound, but as Sikasso had witnessed a fairly recent AQIM attack, I needed to find a bed tonight during daylight hours so dropped the idea.  Found a lovely service station in Sikasso, bought a few bits to eat, had a coffee and refuelled Franki.  

The road from Sikasso to the border was in relatively good shape but the relentless re-surfacing caused a few problems and it had to be treated with a little more respect than the one from Bougouni.  I sent a text to my friend PC in Yamoussoukro to ask him for some Ivorian phone credit on one of my Ivorian numbers just to be ready.  Reaching the border at about 4pm, it was a painless and straightforward process to exit Mali apart from dodging around trucks to find the correct offices.  I was out of Mali, I was finally heading into Cote d'Ivoire, I surprised myself by finding tears running down my face.  I was back in the most beautiful country after 4 months away, a country I seem to have adopted over the years!!!

The Ivorian border started with the police.  I had a grumpy officer who sent me back to Franki to get her documents too; desperate to find something out of place he finally grunted and stamped my passport! The rope barrier was raised as the passenger door was suddenly opened, another officer jumped into the passenger seat, I asked him what he was doing and was told that he was coming to Abengourou with me!  I managed to extract myself from that situation and drove onto customs at Pogo which was a kilometre or so ahead, which is where the trouble started.  

Heading into the customs office they told me I could have a 'vignette touristique' as I didn't have a carnet but this would cost 32,000CFA or 50€.  I laughed at him and told him that I knew they were free, he wasn't laughing, I knew I had a battle on my hands.  I flatly refused to pay, told him it was just a corrupt way of getting cash out of 'la blanche' and a real shame for tourism for Cote d'Ivoire.  He still wasn't budging, so I offered to call a senior police officer and friend ... he thought I was bluffing, I wasn't!  Slightly bemused he took the phone from me and my friend told him that he wanted to speak to his chief, he disappeared into the chief's office for a few minutes, returned and handed me the phone.  I thanked my friend profusely and watched my vignette touristique being typed up!  Grinning from ear to ear, I jumped back into Franki and headed as quickly as possible at about 5.45pm towards Ouangolodougou, known as just Ouangolo (/wangolo/)

The road for the first 86km in Cote d'Ivoire was horrendous.  Pot-holed and difficult; I wasn't happy about being near the border in the dark and know that this road is often ambushed by 'coupeurs de route' at night.  I pressed on as fast as was safe to do so before finally reaching Ouangolo about 2hours after leaving Pogo.  Getting into town 557km after leaving Bamako, there wasn't anywhere obvious to sleep, I found a young couple getting on a jakarta and stopped to ask for ideas of where to stay.  Stephane told me to follow him, he took me to what seemed to be a nice hotel but I wouldn't be able to park Franki inside and the rooms were out of my budget, I asked him if he knew of another.  He told me he would drop his girlfriend who ran a fish stall at a maquis then take me across town.  We finally ended up at a great little place with rooms at 4,000CFA, I then asked him about a nearby maquis to go and eat at; there wasn't anything but he offered to go and get me some fish from his girlfriend.  Very happily esconced near the hotel with a drink, he came back with the fish which is when I got the news that my friend's father had died, someone I held in very high esteem.  Tears poured down my face, poor Stephane really didn't understand what had gone wrong ... I managed to explain, apologise and pull myself together, we finished the fish together, he headed home to his gendarme father and I had a sound night's sleep!
Ouangolodougou - Arrived from Bamako, destination: Yamoussoukro 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Bamako bound

I didn't sleep well, at around 2am someone was crawling around Franki.  I woke up and realised there was a shadow in the dark in this supposedly guarded car park at Relais de Kedougou.  I crept into the front seat, started her up and made a few manoeuvres, eventually parking in front of the main gate to the hotel in the hope that the sleeping watchman would wake up and move me.  It never happened, I went back to sleep waking at around 0630.  I got dressed and went out to carry out the morning checks, the oil and water were ok, but the passenger side front tyre looked a little flat.  I drove into town to a petrol station to get air into the tyre and to refuel.  A few minutes later a minibus driver arrived and had a look for me, declaring I had a puncture.  He jumped in with me and we drove across town to someone he used to get the puncture fixed.  About 15minutes later, 1,000CFA of work I was able to set off east.  Bamako was my goal today!

First flat tyre

The culprit
I drove east for 112km to the border just east of Saraya, the majority of the road was in good shape.  The Senegalese immigration post was very interested by my passport with an array of old West African entry and exit stamps, they were very friendly and one asked if he could continue the journey to Cote d'Ivoire with me.  I continued on initially to Senegalese customs solo, then to the Malian border at Moussala.  The Malian border post was very friendly and sent me up the road to customs, no money had exchanged hands.  I got to customs and the officer declared I was his third wife ... then went into a meeting with his boss leaving me in his office waiting, when I would have rather been on the road to Bamako.

Brilliant synopsis of mileage at the Seneglese border post!
Franki at the Malian border post
After waiting 30 minutes I went off to find my new 'husband' with his boss.  They both apologised and he came back with me to finish off my paperwork and the official 5,000CFA transit payment with a receipt.  I was free to go BUT I had to return to the border post 5km away to get this paperwork stamped by the police who had stamped my passport.  I set off from the border for a second time without any dramas and started to look for a coffee stop!  After several kilometres I reached Kenieba and pulled up outside a big sign proclaiming to be an 'Orange' shop.  I jumped out ready to find a SIM card for Mali and ordered a coffee with Amadou, the coffee barista that my friend in Bamako Phil had met a few weeks later.  The Orange shop hadn't yet been completely furnished so I sent some boys into the market to find me a SIM card whilst I looked for change to buy Amadou's coffee.

I didn't have any small change ...

This was a disaster ...

I couldn't buy coffee ...

The man next to me on the bench was selling jewellery, he realised my predicament and told Amadou in Bambara, a local language, to serve me a coffee.  Suddenly there was a cup in front of me, I looked at Amadou in amazement, my new friend next to me said 'on est ensemble' an expression I heard 18 months earlier when in Bamako; essentially meaning 'we're all in this together' against AQIM.  It cost next to nothing in western terms but meant so much to me, plus this new friend's friendliness wanting to help a complete stranger who was desperate for coffee.  I will be forever grateful.

Around Kenieba
Somewhere a few kilometres outside Kenieba
Scenery before Kita


Somewhere along this route I'd called a friend, Cheik and then Phil, my American friend who runs the Sleeping Camel in Bamako I'd asked him if he'd seen Oleg, the Russian biker, he wasn't sure if Oleg had arrived. By the time I got to Kita, I was hungry and exhausted it had been a long but relatively straightforward road.  Unfortunately it was after 2pm when I reached Kita so after stopping at a maquis, I discovered there wasn't anything left to eat.  I had a drink and got back on the road.  By the time we reached Kati on the edge of Bamako, Franki's radio speakers seemed to be exhausted; suddenly only one speaker was working.  Kati was also an area the Malian branch of AQIM had carried out an attack a few weeks earlier.  I wanted to get on into Bamako so carried on regardless getting fuzzy sounds out of the remaining one!

Driving down the hairpin bends from Kati into Bamako I went past a police post.  Suddenly I heard a whistle and had to pull up.  The young police officer wasn't amused he had to chase after me down the hill but I refused to reverse Franki in the onslaught of traffic that was descending.  He realised that I'd just crossed the border earlier that day so let me go, I wasn't amused, I needed to be at Phil's by nightfall.
Kita outside the maquis

Finally I got into central Bamako 567km completed but I had to contend with the jakartas (49cc scooters) which were abundant in the traffic and it was dangerous negotiating a path around them.  Whilst in the midst of all this traffic at dusk, Phil called me to find out where I was, I couldn't exactly tell him but he was happy I was somewhere in town.  I managed to find my way to the bridge based on old knowledge of the city and drove over it unsure where exactly the Sleeping Camel was, but knowing it was close to the River Niger.  At the lights I turned left into a road that was heavily guarded.  Eventually I found myself outside the unmarked gates and called Phil declaring that I thought I was on his doorstep.  Sure enough I was, I drove in, Franki took out one of his young trees with her roofrack but I parked squarely against the wall.  Jumping out I got a massive welcome from Phil and Oleg, the Russian biker who indeed had made it to Bamako for his Nigerian visa!  I was imagining that Christophe would have been annoyed that I'd made it so quickly, he could have come with me and flown home from Bamako!

It was a long night, between catching up with Phil, Oleg's travels and Jeff, an aviation consultant from the Netherlands before I finally found my bed in the back of Franki again!

Mugshot of the famous Phil, aka Sleeping Camel partner!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bumping east!


It was quick and easy to pack up after a night on the banks of the River Saloum on the eastern edge of Kaolack.  We got back on the main road heading east, Christophe was still coming with me but unsure where he would turn back, but this was sadly his final day.  I had heard from Oleg, the Russian biker who was sending google map locations via WhatsApp as to where he had been camping, he was probably 250km ahead of us!  I had 511km to complete to enable me to stop in Kedougou for the evening, we stopped a few kilometres down the road in Birkelane for breakfast next to the Mairie (town hall).  Continuing on, we came across a bus that had recently crashed, it was on it's side, burnt out and still smouldering, another reason I don't travel at night!  The following village two large trucks had crashed head on, we both thought of Pietr and Marius who were reliant on truck drivers to give them a lift, luckily they weren't in this smash!  The road was in a good state of repair, the vehicles were often not so safe!  

Another coffee break
We continued on, Christophe was debating whether to stay in Tambacounda, which is a large town and gateway to the Niokolo Koba National Park.  A small minibus full of toubab tourists kept overtaking us, we were surprised they didn't seem to stop to show the tourists the sights en route.  Eventually we got to Tambacounda and refuelled on the eastern edge of town having tried to find somewhere for lunch.  Christophe still wanted to continue, so I suggested we get to Wassadougou and have lunch, about 60km further on, I'd stayed here years ago on my way back from Guinea and the Fongolimbi border crossing with a Spanish man who owned a campement.  

Really into baobab country


We entered Wassadougou at speed and almost had a nasty meeting with the bridge which shocked us both with Christophe at the wheel.  Having crossed the bridge I knew we'd gone too far, so we turned around to find Francisco's campement just off the main road.  We spoke to a man walking out of the road that led to Francisco's place, he confirmed that it had been closed for a few years.  We drove back into the village and followed the signs to Campement Hotel Wassadou which was a few kilometres through the bush, to the most stunning site on the banks of the Gambia River.

A group of German tourists had just arrived and were settling in.  We went into the restaurant to be told there wasn't anything to eat, they had only catered for this group!  We ordered a drink and were given a bowl full of nuts, this was the end of the road for Christophe, he had decided to get transport back towards Dakar from the village.  It was a sombre half hour talking about my drive to Kedougou and his accommodation options in Tambacounda where he finally spent the night.

Views from Campement Hotel Wassadou

We got back to the village and I noticed a minibus loading, calling out to the driver to ask if there was a spare seat, Christophe was suddenly dispatched.  It was a quick, brutal and difficult goodbye but probably better that way, wished each other luck, gave each other a big hug whilst they loaded his bag and he got on. I'll admit to having a few tears to see him go, he had truly been the most amazing traveller and we had completed thousands of kilometres together on brilliant terms.  We're still in touch by phone and both wanting to do the trip again!

Solo ... I started Franki, pulled myself together and started to drive out of Wassadougou.  I got 300m and was stopped by a young police officer, I couldn't believe it.  He was rather unfriendly and kept insisting I get out of Franki which I refused to do, the doors were locked and I asked him what he wanted.  Eventually it transpired that the man we had asked about Francisco and his campement was owed money by Francisco, the two of them decided I was bound to pay the man.  I was obviously a friend of Francisco and should settle the financial matter.  I wasn't having any of it, I made it clear I had met Francisco whilst hitchhiking from Kedougou towards Dakar, he had offered me a lift then a room at his campement years ago.  I had no other contact with him, the argument continued for 30 minutes or so, I was hoping Christophe had maybe seen me parked on the side of the road with the policeman but he had long gone!  Eventually I was allowed to continue onto Kedougou 173km away.  It was already after 2pm and I wanted to be there by dark, little did I know what I was about to encounter!
Christophe's transport west
Nids d'Elephants ... the most horrendous piece of road for 90km, this was a relatively good stretch!

Only 8km from Wassadougou I found roadworks, red dust found its way into everything, this continued for 30km. It was gruelling and I could help but thinking that Christophe had done the right thing to leave me at Wassadougou.  I turned the music up, sang along (Christophe used to whistle badly but he hadn't heard my singing which is always badly out of tune) and got on with the job of driving.  I entered the Niokolo Koba National Park which is split by this main road, and hoped to see the end soon.  Coming across a small two door car that had stopped in the opposite direction with a French lady in her fifties or so and I presume her elderly mother I asked when it would end.  She grunted at me and said, it's horrendous, it gets worse.  I hoped she was just in a bad mood and this wouldn't be the case.   The roadworks finished, I was on tarmac again for all of maybe a kilometre then the potholes started, in French they're called 'nids de poules' or chicken nests.  These weren't chicken nests but elephant sized nests and horrendous, I was averaging 10kph it was taking all my concentration to drive Franki through the best bits of the road.  The worrying part was that there was very little traffic, for an hour or so I didn't come across any traffic at all.  The only signs of life I saw were a few warthogs and some policemen happily asleep under a tree midway through the park.   Putting a possible breakdown situation to the back of my head, I slowly crept forward to Kedougou wondering if I'd make it by dusk.  I later told my friend Phil in Bamako about this stretch of road, he took it a few weeks later on a jakarta scooter and also suffered!

120km later, I made it to Mako and tarmac.  I was so happy, so filthy, thirsty and very hungry.  I decided to press onto Kedougou anyway as it was only 43km away and I was worried the road would change again.  It didn't, it was a smooth ride!  On the edge of Mako I noticed a lot of small boys, between maybe 8 and 15 years old all covered in mud.  I'd heard that this region has now turned into a mining goldfield with a lot of illegal and dangerous mines, the boys were obviously being exploited in the mines.  Walking along the side of the road, ragged clothes, barefoot and very muddy, life can't have been easy for them.  I crossed the Gambia River and pushed Franki eastbound.

Pulling into Kedougou, 512km from leaving Kaolack that morning I was elated to have made it. I drove around looking for somewhere to stay, I couldn't find the auberge I'd stayed in years ago.  Due to the mining activity, hotels were pricey, so I drove off to the 5* hotel in town, Relais de Kedougou and had a chat with the manager.  Negotiating him down from 5,000CFA, he agreed I could use a shower and stay in Franki in their car park for 2,000CFA or 3€.  The shower was pure bliss, the red earth was washed out of my hair, my ears and I scrubbed my very red face ... I felt normal once more.  I discovered the minibus that Christophe and I had seen earlier that day, it had been full of Spanish tourists who were staying at the hotel. Keeping to my agreement with the manager, I entered their restaurant, chose a table overlooking the river and thoroughly enjoyed a good meal.

It was Thursday 28th December, I was still on target to keep my promise to friends in Yamoussoukro, to spend New Years Eve with them ... but would I make it?


Gambia River crossing at Mako
River Gambia at Kedougou, from Relais de Kedougou

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Picking up Poles

Around Ouakam, Dakar

We left our auberge, ViaVia, by 8am wanting to beat the rush hour traffic along the Corniche, it was surprisingly quiet but then it was 27th December and Dakar hadn't got back to work yet!  Headed directly to the Malian Embassy in Fann just a few kilometres away and waited for the gate to open. On arrival at the Embassy we came across Marius and Pietr, two young Poles who had slept on the pavement outside the Embassy.  They spoke broken English and absolutely no French and had been hitchhiking south after spending a few months in France earning cash for the trip.  The two of them had a school sized backpack each and we entered the Embassy together, I translated the form for them. I was promised my visa for 2pm so I headed off in search of Christophe outside whilst hearing the Poles might have to wait 48h!

As usual we went off in search of coffee, drove into the back streets of Ouakam and sat under a tree demolishing a few cups of coffee.  We then went up to the airport, so I could go and catch up with my 'Batswanan sister' who works at an aviation organisation next to it & Christophe could go and buy a ticket home.  The mere sight of Franki arriving into the aviation organisation's car park sent one of their guards running to me explaining that 'toubabs' couldn't just park here to visit the airport.  He then realised I had many friends in the offices and calmed down somewhat!  A wonderful but short catch-up, Christophe took a little longer being sent around in circles by airport security to be able to buy a ticket ... eventually we headed back to Ouakam for a light lunch in another Lebanese restaurant.

Marius and Pietr, Poles found camping outside the Malian Embassy
It transpired that Marius and Pietr had managed to persuade the consular officials to issue them visas that day.  They then asked me for a lift to Bamako, Christophe wasn't sure about them, neither was I, but we offered to get them out of Dakar so they could find transport further east.  Once on the road just after 2pm we heard their story.  It was more than a little shocking, having met someone in France from Mopti, Mali; they decided to go and visit his town, on a whim it seems!  They hitchhiked south and at Nouakchott headed east along the Route de l'Espoir, without visas for Mali.  They exited Mauritania and headed towards the Malian border near Nema.  The Malians refused entry, apparently they tried all they could but were refused, which meant returning to Nouakchott.

Arriving back at the Mauritanian border, the Mauritanians refused to let them back in as their single entry visa had now expired.  They were stuck in no-mans-land!  Eventually someone in the military gave them a lift back to Nouakchott and on arrival asked them to pay for the fuel, they offered 10€ each (2.5 day journey!), which apparently didn't go down too well!  They were put on a bus for Rosso, the border with Senegal and told not to return but to leave Mauritania as quickly as possible. 

After hearing this story we asked a few questions, it appears they hadn't got any vaccination, no malarial treatment as they didn't realise mosquitoes can kill!  They were very worried about AQIM asking countless times if Mali was in fact safe?!  I explained the basics to them saying that the south 'should' be safe but you never know, their reply was 'we don't have any money so they won't want us', unfortunately a little more than naive.  Their request to join me as far as Bamako I shelved, they were going to become a risk to me possibly and the worry of one of them getting sick and feeling responsible was too much!  I was going to Bamako alone!

I would be very keen to hear if anyone other travellers have come across these two ... hoping they got home safely!
Another shot of the expensive new Dakar autoroute out to the new airport
En route for Fatick after the end of the autoroute at Saly, a haven for French package holidays
We all jumped out at Saly, a town I loathe, it used to be full of French tourists on package holidays, not so much these days.  Again we wanted coffee and the boys who were living on milk and bread three times a day wanted bananas.  They wandered off to find some then raced back to ask me to help, the 10 or so bananas were pricey.  The lady had seen them coming and asked for 5€, I talked to her but she wasn't budging, she was going to get money out of these 3 toubabs ... we politely declined and walked away.  I could see these two were going to have a hard time of it, they had no idea how to negotiate and in Senegal like much of West Africa, negotiation is key to survival!

A few kilometres further on we decided to drop them in Fatick, we knew that they were far enough east to find a lift and it was a small enough town to probably find some safe accommodation.  We pressed on hoping to find somewhere to stay at Kaolack 195km from Dakar, it was Christophe's final night with Franki and I.
Hotel Adjana, Kaolack - a little out of our budget
Stunning hotel but lacked atmosphere!



We pulled into Hotel Adjana, following the signs.  The driveway was very smart and as we got closer (and told to park correctly, not at an angle) we realised we were way out of our league.  We had a look around, checked out the pool area and ordered a drink, however they weren't keen to serve us, were we looking a little tatty for them?  They didn't seem to have many, if any, clients, the atmosphere was very sombre so we were surprised that we couldn't sit an enjoy a drink by the pool. We headed back into town at dusk to find a small Lebanese owned bar on the main street, sat down to have a good look over the menu, it unfortunately wasn't up to much.  Christophe decided to go and have a look around town, after 30minutes or so he returned with a bag of goods as well as Pietr and Marius who had found Franki parked on the pavement outside.  They had decided to keep going despite our warnings about travelling when it's dark!

Eventually we left the bar and headed for the bus station, Christophe had found some great street food there.  A lovely lady served us some rice and beef in mafe (peanut) sauce.  We were surrounded by Talibes, young boys who are at a Madrasa, a Koranic school run by a Marabout who are religious teachers.  These boys are sent into the streets to beg for sugar, rice and money, I've seen them on every trip to Senegal, their situation seems to get worse, not better!  The youngest one was quite friendly, we tried to talk to him about his situation at the Madrasa. Although he spoke mainly Wolof with bits of French we had help from our lady at the food stall who helped out with translating.  The older boys soon arrived and got angry with him for talking about his life to toubabs.  This exploitation is a phenomenon that is found across a lot of Senegal in particular, including Dakar; and the abuse can be extreme with a lot of young boys suffering in silence away from their families whilst at the Madrasa.
Supper at the bus station in Kaolack
A young Talibe
Finishing supper, Christophe had already spotted somewhere to sleep.  The Saloum river had wide flat banks, we drove about 2km out of town and about 200m from the main road there were quite a few houses that had the exterior walls built.  We backed Franki up to about 5metres from a wall and Christophe hung his hammock attaching it to the steel reinforcement of the wall and Franki's ladder at the other end.  We went foraging for wood, found an enormous branch of thorns which we dragged across and lit it.  This soon attracted attention as a car from the neighbouring village probably just over a kilometre away decided to come and investigate.  It got to within 500m of us and turned around, obviously deciding we weren't causing too much trouble; again we entered this great bushcamp location on iOverlander!  Whilst he had gone shopping in town, Christophe had found a wine shop of some description with a lovely bottle of red, a French Merlot.  We sat talking for hours drinking wine, absolute silence around us and the sky ablazen with stars, eventually I retired to my bed inside Franki and Christophe to his hammock.  It had been an amazing trip with a complete stranger who had been a star; tomorrow I would be driving solo!
Best camp site ever, bushcamping on the banks of the River Saloum

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

President's Public Holiday

Whilst I spent a comfortable night sleeping in Franki, Christophe decided he wanted to use his hammock.  We both had a good night's sleep after the trials of getting over the border.  Zebrabar had good clean shower facilities but with cold water, the outside temperature wasn't all at warm at 0630 it made for a very chilly shower!

Coffee made and drunk, we were ready to depart.  Christophe got behind the wheel but Franki had managed to get her front tyres in some deep sand, probably due to parking in the dark!  Oleg the Russian biker, a Czech overlander and some others came to our rescue and pushed her out of the sand, we were off.  Aiming to be in Dakar as quickly as possible so that I could apply for a Malian visa hopefully in the same day.   Sadly Christophe had decided that we wouldn't make Bamako in time, he needed to return to France for his business in the early New Year and started looking for flights from Dakar to Marseille.

Just a quick coffee to start the day off at Zebrabar, then en route for Dakar if we can get out of the sand!
Zebrabar's restaurant and bar area
And we're off, Dakar bound!
Mouit
We rejoined the main road a few kilometres from Mouit, a good surfaced road that was reasonably fast apart from the sleeping policemen on the edge of towns.  After an hour we stopped again to have another coffee from a roadside table.  The traffic was heavy the whole way to Dakar until we got on the new autoroute.  We were shocked by the price of the tolls on the autoroute of which there were many, every few kilometres!
Duck transport!
Senegal's expensive new autoroute for the new airport
Finally we got into central Dakar, 243km later, I messed up on directing Christophe to Fann, a suburb on the Corniche where the Malian Embassy was located, we got off the autoroute too far into town.  We ended up in Plateau, the CBD and had to get out of some crazy traffic to join the Corniche and head up the other side of the peninsula, it was lunchtime so the Embassy would be closed.  Ending up in Mamelles another suburb, where I knew of a few places for lunch, we found a Lebanese restaurant with a very friendly Lebanese owner who changed money for us.  Unfortunately he was also the bearer of bad news, today, 26th December 2016 was a public holiday!  The President had decreed the night before that it should be a holiday as the Christians in Senegal didn't get a holiday for Christmas as it fell on a Sunday.  We were NOT impressed with this.  Finishing lunch we decided to return to Fann and the Embassy to see if they were closed; they were!  Our only option was to chill out for the rest of the day and unfortunately find accomodation for the night, it gave me a chance to show Christophe some of the sights of Dakar too.  Over the last 12 years or so that I've known the city, each time I return it has grown, been modernised and upgraded it's roads, not to mention the outrageously expensive statue that sits on a hill near Ouakam.

I decided that we should go and try ViaVia Auberge in Yoff, somewhere I had stayed before several years ago on my return from Guinea Conakry.  Christophe went in to see if they had room, luckily they did, we could also park Franki down a side street.  This meant taking the bikes and wheelchair off the roof and finding room in Franki to store them or they would vanish overnight despite a sturdy chain and padlock.  Christophe was amazing at reorganising the little space we had in the back and we got it all in.  Our work for the day now over, we decided to head down to the beach and chill out at a little bar.  On our way back to ViaVia we found some wonderful street food and sat enjoying the meal watching the world and his wife wander past us, before heading back to the auberge to sleep.
Yoff, Dakar
ViaVia Auberge, Yoff
Beach at Yoff