It’s November 1992. Phil Clisby picks up the tale of his African odyssey, as he embarks on a day-long train journey from Burkina Faso into the Ivory Coast, on a strict deadline to reach Ghana. What could possibly go wrong?
It was becoming very hot and I am starting to feel really sick. The last thing I need is an 18-hour train journey, but, I thought, if the train is half as good as the one from Ouagadougou to Bobo at least I could sleep it off.
The train station is unbelievably huge, as it was in Ouaga – there are around 12 ticket desks, but only one is open. Seeing as there are only two trains a day it does seem a little excessive.
The train is already packed when it pulls in and there are hundreds of people waiting on the platform.
We dive on, find a shabby looking carriage with, thankfully, some spare seats and sit down. But it turns out this is First Class. Instantly regretting our thrifty Second-Class ticket purchase, we move down the train. There’s no room anywhere. People are sitting in the aisles. There are massive baskets of food everywhere – oranges and tomatoes spilling onto the floor – great sacks of material, even live chickens tied together and shoved under seats.
We pray everyone is only taking their produce a couple of stops down the line, to markets, but no – everyone, it seems, is going to the end of the line – Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast.
And at every subsequent stop more people pile on, dragging yet more baskets of stuff.
We find a spot in a corridor on the floor next to an open door – the ventilating system – and settle down.
The train pulls out of Bobo at 4pm, the scenery rushing by. I feel a real sense of speed sitting on the carriage step with the undergrowth just a couple of feet from my face.
I am still feeling rough, but at least I have some air… until the ticket inspector arrives. Apparently the corridor we are sitting in still counts as First Class, even though we are on the floor – so we have to move. I tell him I am sick and I must have air, and, after a heated debate, thankfully the inspector allows me to stay sat in the doorway.
Every stop is unreal. Aside from more people piling on, traders walk up and down the outside of the carriages, carrying great trays on their heads full of drinks, watermelons, pineapples, bread, oranges and sticks (which the locals use to clean their teeth, by sucking on them and brushing until the stick has crumbled away). A cacophony of shouts and hollers rings out, as they advertise their wares.
We travel past some controlled (I hope) bush fires, the flames barely a foot or two from my face, black ash flies into the carriage.
We breeze through the border stop on the Burkina Faso side, but the Ivory Coast side is a different matter. The guard can’t get his stamp to work. Faced with this dilemma, he seems reluctant to let us through, but, eventually, after some (not so calm) calm persuasion, he writes something in our passports and allows us back on the train.
However, we’d lost our coveted spot in the doorway and have to make our way into a carriage. We force ourselves into a very tight space, wedged between squawking chickens, a basket of tomatoes and a toilet door – our bottoms hardly touching the floor.
Following a cramped, sleepless night, a miracle occurs. After 16 hours on the floor, the occupants of a bench next to where we are sitting get off. We dive onto it as if our lives depend upon it, only to find there is no seat – just a great, glaring hole where the wooden slats should be. We are now even more uncomfortable than when we had been on the floor, our bums hanging into open space as we perch on the seat’s frame.
By now our spot on the floor has been swallowed up. We are stuck.
We roll into Abidjan just after two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon – our 22-hour endurance test at an end. I’m not sure we passed, though.
Although desperate to find a hotel, get a shower and grab some shuteye, that will have to wait. First, we have to find the Ghana Embassy to lodge our visa applications. Inevitably, out taxi driver doesn’t know where the embassy is. But, after asking someone for directions, we set off… to the wrong place, where we are told it is back the way we came – about 200 metres from the train station.
We rush into the embassy, only to be told it had closed 20 minutes ago and the next day for visas is Friday, to be collected Monday. Disaster, we are supposed to be in Accra to meet up with the truck by Monday.
Our desperate pleas fall on deaf ears.
The next morning, we mooch about, getting to know Abidjan. The heat is unbearable and I’m sweating buckets by 9am. We stop a coconut seller, who shows off his skills with a machete, slicing the top off the nut so we can drink the cool, refreshing milk, before he chops the shell up for us to eat the energy-giving insides.
We’d heard there was an ice rink somewhere in the city. The thought of just lying down in a freezing cold building fills us with joy. But could we find it?
We baulked at asking anyone else directions.
On the Friday we arrive first thing at the Ghana Embassy to lodge our visa applications but, despite pleading that we have to travel to Accra today, the bureaucrats stick to their guns and we will have to wait until Monday afternoon to pick them up. Rules are rules.
Life’s a beach
To kill the time, we decide to spend the weekend at the beach, so we catch a bus to Grand-Bassam, about half-an-hour out of town.
The hotels out of our price range, we set up camp on the beach, sheltered against the back wall of a disused house, sleeping under the stars and mozzie nets. Still, at least we had a sea view.
We spend the day tanning and eating pineapples and coconuts, which we buy off the girls who carry them up and down the sand on their heads.
Kids besiege us – drawing us pictures and jabbering away in their native tongue. One makes me a shell necklace, while three girls plait, untie and replait Wendy’s hair, repeatedly. Each time they demand money from her – a very enterprising triplet.
When we leave the beach to go into town for some food, the boys pick up our bags and carry them for us. We dine on spaghetti Bolognese, but without the pasta – they had run out.
On our last day in Bassam, we pop along to the area’s renowned Sunday market. There are two long, long rows of stalls selling an array of fabulous batique art, masks, tablecloths, and hand-carved wooden tables and chairs. We bargain hard for a considerable length of time for a couple of paintings. Walking away and coming back a couple of times. Judging by the scowl on the trader’s face, as we walk off clutching our purchases, we got a good deal.
Later, as we sit at a bar quenching our thirst, a guy approaches us, saying his mum owns a restaurant and we should eat there. He could only speak French and, as ours was limited, he went to fetch a friend who could speak a bit of English. About all his friend could manage was to tell us his mate’s mum had a restaurant that was really good.
He then went to get his friend from Senegal, who could speak better English. We chatted to him for a while before he got to the point – his mate’s mate’s mum owned a restaurant that was very good and we should go there. But just to be sure he went to fetch a friend, also from Senegal, who could speak perfect English.
Melang, who it transpires is a very talented musician, could indeed speak excellent English, and he tells us about this fabulous restaurant that a friend of a friend of a friend’s mum runs. We were going to have to go there.
With some trepidation, wondering if there really was a restaurant, and if there was would it live up to the hype, we followed our new-found friend through a series of dark alleys before arriving at an oasis of light – the appointed eatery.
The restaurant, it turns out, is in the mum’s backyard, with a charcoal burner and a few tables and chairs set up. It seems a popular hang out, and she cooks up a scrumptious chicken and rice.
We chat away, listening to some African music, slowly getting drunk on life… and beer.
Melang asks to listen to some of our music – but all we had with us was a Duran Duran greatest hits tape of Wendy’s. We slip it into the deck, wondering what reaction we will get. They love it, everyone dances away to Hungry Like the Wolf (very apt considering we are in a restaurant).
Our bellies full, we retire to Melang’s flat, where he fetches his guitar; pictures of Bob Marley adorn his walls. He plays some of his own songs as well as a Bob medley. A real treat.
After each tune, he sits, eyes closed, whispering: “I love Bob Marley so, so much.”
After another night on our sand mattress, we head back to Abidjan to pick up our visas. We buy bus tickets to Accra – CFA4000 (£10) plus a further CFA1000 to “facilitate the crossing of the border”.
The ticket states: “Book in at 6am, Depart at 7am.” The ticket man tells us this is just a formality and to turn up at 7 o’clock.
The following morning we head to the bus station to catch our 7am ride. Three hours later, once the bus is jammed full of people, and onions, we set off.
Ten minutes down the road we stop and the co-driver disappears for 15 minutes, returning armed with produce. We stop at every subsequent village, and the same thing happens. It seems he has a bit of business in each one; once coming back armed with strings of crabs, which he piles at the front of the bus. They absolutely stink, and they twitch throughout the 12-hour-long journey.
In Accra, after disembarking the bus, we catch a cab into town to find a hotel. We stop at one, but it is full, so we walk across the road into another – and what a stroke of luck, there’s our truck.
It had been an adventure, striking out on our own – but, boy, it’s good to be back.