The road through the bamboo tunnel and sections of newly constructed road lead us to the sleepy border, crossing over a small bridge into Côte d’Ivoire. Arriving in the periphery of a new country, far away from the capital, other cities and the main road network, you feel you are in a forgotten poorer part of the country. We are in a sparsely populated corner of the country that nestles between Liberia and Guinea. The spread out villages, have fair size square mud houses, often poorly constructed, with shallow pitched roofs made from grass laid over black polythene. Spaces between houses provide shaded communal areas, sometimes with a Côte d’Ivoire flag flying.
This region has had problems in the recent past with anti government groups coming over from Liberia and there have been skirmishes with security forces, but not for a few years now, however this is still classified as an amber region by the UK foreign office. The amber area is a strip along the Liberian Côte d’Ivoire border and we were on the northern extremity of it. During our route planning we had a dilemma with this section of our journey. One option was to go through Liberia from Sierra Leone and enter Côte d’Ivoire near to the coast, but this would mean going right through the orange zone. We could have tracked further north in Guinea entering into north Côte d’Ivoire, but that would have taken us closer to Mali which we preferred not to do. Skimming along the top of the orange area was the best option and it’s the preferred route for the few overlanders that come through this way. Our hotel has an advisory sticker on the door.
It was a long day on roads under construction by the Chinese, that eventually became newly finished roads. We pushed on to the first main town of Danané, where the usual pre town police checkpoint pulled us over for the normal questions. Probably due to previous unrest in the area we were escorted by police motorbike to the headquarters for registration, an outline of our planned route was recorded, and ourselves and the bike photographed for records. The next morning leaving the town, the police rang head quarters to check our credentials. You could hear the conversation as his superior was referring to the ‘ touriste deux velo’ and then the smile, and wave on our way. This was not like police checks from earlier in our trip, which were either social, or a nuisance, this seemed like they really felt a duty of care and there was absolutely no question of money.
Now we were really in Côte d’Ivoire, not the backwater we had entered by. There was a different feel here, much more affluent and business like. There were many eating places and bars called Marquis. Food was being served that looked nice. It had garnishes of nicely prepared salad. Suddenly eating wasn’t just functional. Young people, girls and boys were sitting around having a beer socially. Quite a few people had money for leisure. Life wasn’t just about feeding yourself, getting water and building shelter. We sat at a ‘Jardin de plein air’, a kind of beer garden that had a DJ playing loud local music. People of all ages having a social beer or wine. We joined them and enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere, while some youths sat and looked at their smart phones. Many people were making fashion statements, hair straightening and dyeing purple and pink. There is a sense of freedom. Small businesses, entrepreneurs, shops and cafes line the streets. There is so much activity. Large markets with a labyrinth of covered passageways selling all kinds of goods: dried fish and frogs, pots of all shapes and sizes, brightly coloured fish, chillis, tomatoes, plantains and large gnarly yams. All served by brightly coloured women. The air is filled with the smell of spice.
As we roll into low slung tatty villages and small towns of concrete buildings under tin roofs, worn painted timber shacks, stalls shaded by beach umbrellas repaired with black polythene, and spindly grass roofed structures, there is a herald of bon arrive, bonjour, bon travail, bon chance, so many bons and beaming smiles, how can you not love these people. Stalls selling yams, avocados, and coconuts. People beating metal to fabricate parts for motorbikes. Ladies dressed so colourfully, cooking deep fried fish and rice in huge pots over open fires or charcoal burners. The relaxed beat of amplified African music pulsates from a Marquis, a food and drink place. People sit on tarnished painted stools surrounding coffee stalls under low shaded roofs. There is a relaxed feel, and we sit at the coffee counter, order omelettes in bread and black coffee. These places are great for a chat with local people and often the conversation moves onto problems facing the country and the government.
Côte d’Ivoire is an organised place with tarmac roads, reliable electricity, great mobile coverage, mains water, shops and hotels. Police checkpoints are manned by people looking at there smart phones or sleeping on a couch under a grass thatched shade.
Côte d’Ivoire has had problems more recently than the other countries we have travelled through and probably unjustifiably, and after reading accounts of other people’s encounters, we decided not to disappear down tiny tracks into remote regions, and stay on more main roads. This inevitably led to less full on adventures, but we still had great people experiences at our stops.
We cycle on across the country in the hot humid weather passing through all kinds of plantations: rubber, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, and papaya, separated by expanses of land that has had the forest stripped for agriculture, but has now been sadly left and the bush has recolonised it with featureless vegetation, that is good for nothing. Perhaps they were former farming projects that had failed or just the remanence of slash and burn agriculture. The wide roads have no shade and after several days we start to tire and the heat saps our strength. Towards the east and as we close in on Ghana the plantations and miscellaneous vegetation gives way to thicker jungle. Swarms of green and black butterflies fill the road ahead and once again there was the sound of exotic bird song filling the air.
It’s Sunday, children are smartly dressed and women are wearing matching brightly coloured clothes. All ready for going to church. Every place we go through there’s the pleasant sound of drums, percussion, and singing with enthusiasm wafts out from the churches. We pause for a while outside one simple concrete church with no doors or windows, just gaps in the stark structure, taking in the atmosphere. At the front there are ladies singing with a band. There are lines of rough and ready pews spaced out in an irregular manner. People are dancing and singing. Others sit back in thought and take in the place. Others kneel deep in prayer. A lady outside the church is giving it her all, singing and dancing. This sums up the unreserved character of the people here. Whatever you want to do is fine.