Trans-Saharan Trip - Lome to Senegal


We are camped at Robinson Plage, still with the Dragoman group. This is the only swimming beach along this dangerous coast, and the campsite has a pleasant restaurant/bar, with a good supply of Benin beer, the best I am to sample on this trip. Geoff and I have to get a visa for Ghana, and it takes a full three days. We spend quite a lot of time in town, and make it to the fetish market, with its extensive and amazing array of animal skulls, fur, feathers, carved dolls, dried frogs and bats, rusty metal, stones, bones - you name it, there is someone who will buy it as a fetish. By the time we have our visas for Ghana, our Togo visas have expired, and legally we are obliged to extend them, then to get an exit permit, both of which may take up to three days each. We feel that this treadmill of beaurocracy could take us over, and decide to try to cross into Ghana anyway. Give away the air mattresses and the excess luggage, kiss goodbye, and we're off, fully expecting to be back in an hour or so, rejected by the first official we see.

Not so. The border crossing is confusing, and we are bullied through it by a local Mr Fixit, but the officials don't really look at our permits at all, and two hours later we are in a bush taxi to Accra.

My god - they speak English here! Ghana is great, run by and for the Ghanaians. I feel the same way as I did in Mali; happy to be here, comfortable with the people, love the little kids. There is a very good craft market at the far end of town, and we buy a couple of carvings to send home. They have to be certified by the museum, which is worth a visit in its own right. There are fishermen down on the beach, and the fishing methods are identical to those we've seen in India. We spend longer in Accra than we first planned, it is so good. The streets are run down, there are gaping holes in the footpath, walking at night is dangerous, not because of the people, who are very friendly, but because of the state of the paths, and it is wonderful! There is a sign advertising cures for impotency given pride of place in the middle of the only roundabout, and we can't resist the Sambu Shito sauce (for student and other use) or the Pee Cola in the supermarket.

Our first stop along the coast is Apam, a small fishing village with Fort Patience (Leydsaamheid) up on the hill. Staggering out of the packed bush taxi, we ask about a hotel, and are waved towards the fort. It is the only place to stay, and even then someone moves out of his room to give us a bed. The army is camped in the ground floor, but there is no power, water, toilet, or food to be had. Geoff and I go on a hunter/gatherer mission around the local shops, and come back with a tin of (international aid) sardines and a couple of oranges to dine on. The view is magnificent from the fort battlements, and the children in the street run up to us with an english version of the french "Ca va?". Here we get the chant of "How are you?" "I am fine!", and I finally figure why I like these kids so much - when I say goodbye they run back to their mothers.

We move on reluctantly, visiting the fort at Cape Coast, and staying at Elmina. The history of this area is vividly illustrated in the forts, now maintained as museums. There seems to be no rancour or resentment from today's custodians towards the people (both black and white) who caused so much suffering with the slave trade, but the stories they tell make a strong impression on us. Elmina is a particularly interesting town, and we spend a few days there, visiting the castle and the fort, chatting to the boys at the school behind the castle, and sitting on the wall watching the fishing boats being pulled up into the harbour. Watching the boats is a favoured occupation - everyone does it. There is a strong current running out to the ocean, and the fishermen have to get out of their pirogues and pull them up against the stream. People shout encouragement, and it can be quite dramatic.

We're going to take the train from Takoradi to Kumasi, so its back to the bush taxis. They have slogans painted on them: 'Except (sic) the Word', 'Repent', 'Only Jesus', 'Watch and Pray', 'Stand firm in Christ', 'Let them Say'. In Takoradi we ask directions to a hotel, and the man we talk to bundles us into his car and drives us there, the other side of town. The train takes about 13 hours (advertised as 7 hours) but the trip is fine - the world's cheapest and best train! Kumasi isn't very interesting, but it does have a large market.

Off to the Ivory Coast border, crammed into yet another bush taxi. At the border there is a demand a small donation from everyone. We're in line with the other 13 people from the taxi, when another official comes up and tells us not to pay the bribe. He disappears, the line shuffles along, and when it is our turn we pay up, as requested. Minutes later our champion re-appears, asks us if we paid the money, and retrieves it for us! This is one of the few times we are singled out to be treated differently from the locals. Another bush taxi ride, over appalling roads; the police stop the car and demand petrol, which is siphoned off into their tank. Once away from the border the roads are good and there are excellent buses that give a smooth ride into Abidjan.

Arriving in Treichville, we head for Marcory, and become that suburb's token whites. Its a reasonable place to stay, with a fair variety of hotels and restaurants, and a good bus service to Le Plaeau. There are more visas to get, and the outstanding problem of how to get back to Oz; flights are very expensive from Africa to Australia, and we eventually pay $US2500+ each for a one-way ticket with Ethiopian Airlines from Dakar to Perth. For a short while we are millionaires, cashing the thousands of dollars in traveller's cheques for more than a million CFA, carrying it rapidly through the teeming streets to the airline office, and exchanging it for tickets with no confirmed status. Despite its high-tech profile, Abidjan has a standard African market in the middle of Le Plateau, as well as an artisan sector. Just outside Marcory stands an amazing shopping centre, with an air-conditioned supermarket selling everything imaginable - shrink-wrapped suckling pig, live telapia (fish), eggs imported from France. There is a huge car-park, and the patrons are ex-pat French, with scarcely a black face in sight, except for those serving behind the counters. Sundaes at an ice-cream parlour cost more than than a night's stay at the hotel. As a contrast, Treichville has an extensive market, thronged with local residents.

A day trip to Grand Bassam reveals traces of the colonial past, and a long, spead-out craft market to stroll along and enjoy. However, it is Grand Lahou, west of Abidjan, that proves to be really worth going to, despite the bone-shaking bush-taxi ride. There is only one place to stay, out on the island; we have a thatched hut, and are the only guests. The ex-pat family running the hotel are very friendly and only the cost keeps us from staying longer. Rather than repeat the bush taxi ride we opt for the 'petrolette', travelling back to Abidjan along the inland waterways. What starts as a fascinating trip, surrounded by trussed-up red crabs (live!) and other piles of tropical produce, becomes an ordeal, taking 13 hours, sitting on a bench with no back support, and little chance of dozing off. The boat arrives at Treichville at 2am; a few passengers disembark, but this is a dangerous area at night, and most re-arrange their weary bodies on the deck and wait for dawn.

The trip up to Man stops briefly in Yamoussoukro, with its eight-lane highway to nowhere, and its stunning cathedral. We spend Christmas in Man, a pleasant town, and a good place for walking. A short walk out of town brings us to La Cascade, a beautiful waterfall with stunning butteflies, dragonflies and damselflies, which land on us to taste the sweat - its a great place for a picnic, and is very popular with both locals and tourists. In the other direction, we take a day trip to Tieni and Souabli, meeting the ancient and rather fragile chief. Its a nice place to visit, and even the walk back to Man is worth doing, with a eerie, deserted, container-city along the way. Man brings a strange reminder of home; at dinner in the hotel one night the show on TV catches our eye - it is an Australian soap opera, dubbed into french!

Back to Yamoussoukro, then north to Ferkessedougou, where we meet a 60-year-old Dutchman who is cycling around West Africa, slowly re-visiting places he had last seen as a youth. Geoff and I are heading back to Mali, and cross at an obscure border where no-one stamps our passports or checks our visas. In theory we are supposed to report to the police at the next large town, but we have had our fill of Malian police and SMERT on our first visit, and plan to avoid them this time. Bamako is a low-profile capital city, with only one high-rise building, and that is down by the river. From the escarpment, a moderate walk out of the city, the view shows mainly trees, all the way down to the Niger, and it is difficult to remember that there is a thriving city under all the green. There are quite a few things to see in the city; the artisan's market is worth a visit, especially the woodcarvers, with their use of local ebony. An attempt to confirm our return flight to Perth reveals that we don't have a flight at all. Ho Hum. The staff at the Ethiopian Airlines office promise to do something about it.

We're staying in a dormitory/verandah, over the main street, witness to the noise and joy of the new year celebrations. There are quite a few other travellers, including Nigel, a young merchant banker, who arrived in Africa with the wrong CFA (central, not west), and found himself in the back blocks of Senegal in dire straits. He ended up entering the commodities market, buying grain from the government store, who would accept his central african CFA, and re-selling his stores to the local rip-off shopkeepers for considerably less west african CFA than they were worth. Now he is in Mali, with a small supply of CFA and a mastercard that no-one will accept. Each day we compare notes - we have our progress with Ethiopian Airlines, and he strives to find someone to honour his plastic card. In the end he gives in, and uses the last of his CFA to buy a ticket back to the UK, with a stopover in Moscow. He was in Africa for a whole 10 days!

There's a train into Senegal, so we decide to take it to Tambacounda. While I line up at the counter to buy the tickets I feel a hand in my pocket. I grab the youth by the wrist, and call out "Voleur!" to alert other people in the queue, but he twists out of my grip and races off to get lost in the crowd. The train is comfortable, but it leaves late at night, and we will cross the border in the early hours of the morning. We're a bit apprehensive about this border, since we don't have stamps to show our entry to Mali on this visit. Bureaucracy is announced by a knock on the door - Mali officials are on the train, checking en route. We wake up, and let in a cheerful man who sees our sleep-filled faces and fingers fumbling for hidden money belts. Smiling, he waves us back to sleep, and doesn't bother to look at our passports at all.

The Senegal border approaches unfeared - we have multiple-entry visas valid for a long period. The train stops, and we blunder sleepily out into the dark night, with a handful of other foreigners. No problem, just hand over the papers, get the stamps and back on the train. Good theory. It even worked for me, but Geoff's visa has the wrong expiry date on it (1989, not 1990) and he is waved away peremptorily. Panic! I muster my best french, and preceed to explain how this can't be - that the expiry date is before the date of issue, and that both visas were issuedfor the same period. Initially I have no joy. The official has made his decision, and that is that. The small crowd is rapidly dispersing, re-joining the train, and we are getting desperate. An appeal to yet another official yields results, and at the last minute my explanation is listened to, the visa is accepted, and we run back to the train as it starts to move away, adrenalin surging, wide awake, in stark contrast to the sleepy people who got out an hour ago.


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