All I Want For Christmas Is An Airbed Repair Kit…

“Silent Night, Holy Night. All Is Calm, All Is Bright…”

WELL, Christmas Eve did go silent eventually. And the nights either side were dominated by holes – one pesky one belying its tiny stature with the problems it caused.

All of which added up to a shortage of calm and brightness the following mornings, at least from within the confines of my mosquito tent.

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Pig of a Day – Steve gets to grips with Christmas lunch

Over the course of our 10-month adventure, we have a route and itinerary which flexes as events and conditions demand. After all, we are told, this is Africa. Things change and it all moves to a different beat.

But along the way, we have several dates and places set in stone. People are joining or, sadly, leaving the trip in Accra (which is starting to loom on the horizon), Cape Town and Nairobi. We have to be there pretty much on schedule.

Then there are the dates which are not going to move for anybody and Christmas Day has been prompting plans, decorations and rumours (where, what, how) almost since we set foot in Africa at the start of November.

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Hard At Work – Steve and Joe find a much better use for the sand mats

And for the final week or so before the big day, what we may or may not be doing and where we would spend it was the major topic of discussion.

The answer, once we had undergone one of those last-minute changes of plans which Africa seems to specialise in, was camping in the outer compound of a complex complete with bar, restaurant (although judging by how long a plate of chips took to arrive, nobody braved ordering anything more elaborate), showers (sort of), toilets (not to be taken lightly), a pool (in this heat and with limited showers, certainly not to be taken lightly) and even a nightclub.

Well, a small room with a bar, a dance floor and a woman keen on dragging in any passing traveller, often aided by Steve. At least it had air con.

Sadly still no sign of the holy grail that is wi-fi – which sent people scurrying to charge or get credits for their phones to contact home over Christmas, but all a major contrast from when you left us in the heart of the excited villagers of Yodibikro.

Amid the heat and chaos of the previous evening, the decision was made to slip out as quietly as possible before breakfast, before the crowds could gather to make our packing up and departure any more complicated.

But there were still a fair few locals up bright and early to wave us off (after a surprisingly good night’s sleep once the human inhabitants of the village left us largely alone, but the cockerels demonstrated a complete lack of time-keeping ability, judging by how long and loud they kept up their alarm calls).

And having made our way back to the main road, via a swift roadside breakfast and the discovery of any hangovers from the previous night’s events, Steve pointed Nala towards the capital Yamassoukoro.

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Praise The Lord – Nala gets up close the basilica in Yamassoukoro

Capitals have, until now, meant an overnight stop and, in most cases, the ongoing pursuit of visas.

But Yamassoukoro is not your standard capital. Until 1983, it wasn’t the capital at all, merely a small village which just happened to be the birthplace of former Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

His legacy is a string of wide, empty roads and one huge basilica, modelled on St Peter’s in Rome, reputedly the world’s largest Christian place of worship and opened by the then Pope in 1990 on the agreement the president spent oodles of cash on a much-needed hospital.

The basilica is built and looms on a hillside overlooking the city, which we did not hang around too long to check out. The hospital not so much.

This, Is. Africa.

It is certainly an impressive building, but rather like the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, it is preposterous, the result of one powerful man’s desire to be remembered and stamp his mark on his country with one huge monument to his ego, rather than forge a lasting memorial by tackling some of the issues faced by his people.

While there was little drive to head inside for a closer look, the motorway which links Yamassoukoro and former capital Abidjan was one legacy we were happy to embrace as we ate up the miles into the first, brief, rain since Morocco.

Compared with most of the bigger cities we have visited, Abidjan has a more western feel, but remains distinctly African, throwing up the issues this continent specialises in.

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Lounging By The Pool – Christmas Day was a struggle

Pulling up at the campsite which has housed the last couple of Trans Africa trips, we found no sign of the compound and all the luxuries we had been dreaming of at the back of the truck. Instead, we found a long stretch of rubble with the entire seafront flattened.

But with cook groups dispatched into the market opposite and a new plan needed, it arrived in a hurry as a car pulled up in front of the truck and out stepped the former owner of the now vanished campsite.

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Photobombing – Joe makes a splash

He had seen the big yellow truck roll down the road, put two and two together and jumped in his car to help us out with an alternative venue he knew a few miles down the road.

This. Is. Africa.

Within minutes of arriving in our new home, half our group – well, most of the guys – were in the pool and in the midst of a birthday party thrown by a bunch of teachers from a local school.

Keen to practise their English and just to show wonderful hospitality, we were instantly invited into the throng, eating cake, dancing and making friends.

This. Is. Africa.

With conditions making the sea at the adjacent beach out of bounds, the pool became a base for many us over the next few days – not surprising as temperatures soared above 30C, to say nothing of the humidity – and a handy tool to discover where the leak was which caused my air bed to go down twice during our stay.

Some made it out to Abidjan at one point, while we all headed to Grande Bassam for one final Christmas shopping expedition and fruitless search for festive wi-fi, before we settled in to mark the holidays back at the campsite.

Not as loudly, however, as the congregation of the church next door who ushered in Christmas Day with a service mixing midnight mass and a gospel rock concert, undeterred by the shower which forced those of us in mosquito tents back into the safety of the tents we had left back in Senegal and had all of us sweltering under rain covers throughout the night.

By the time the congregation had unplugged their amps, normal service was resumed back in dry tents and we steeled ourselves for a day of lounging by the pool, phoning home and settling down to enjoy the feast centred around two pigs cooked by Steve over charcoal and suspended between two of the sand mats (which we had conveniently got out to free us from the sandy car park before heading out the day before).

A visit from Father Christmas to dish out our secret Santa presents and we spent a relaxed evening scattered around the site before heading off to bed.

And discovering one Christmas wish for a fully-inflated bed had not come true.

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Yodibikro

WHY travel?

Simple question and one asked in various forms from non-converts since the urge to head off around the world really took hold.

Providing an answer has never been simple. There’s usually some mumbling about experiencing and seeing new things, meeting people from different backgrounds and just enjoying the feeling of freedom.

In future, it can be easier to explain. Travel, at least this form of lengthy overland travel, is all about days like Sunday, December 21, 2014.

What we thought lay ahead as we headed south on our first full day in Cote d’Ivoire was another bush camp. Maybe, if we were lucky, we might actually get a campsite with showers. They might even be hot. There may even, whisper it quietly, be wi-fi.

Such are the wishes of a truck full of overlanders as we near the time to pull off the road for that night’s stop.

What we got was Yodibikro.

Way back in Gibraltar, on our first night of the trip – seven weeks, but seemingly a whole other world, ago – Steve asked the main things on my list of things to do and see as we headed around Africa.

Not sure how coherent my answer was with a mouthful of food and after a couple of beers, but think it went somewhere along the lines of trying not to have such a list in mind as past experience has proved it is generally the things you didn’t see coming, had no way of knowing about or expected very little from which turn out to be the most memorable.

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Goat in a bowl

And none of us saw the village of Yodibikro coming. Right until we were in the middle of it. Even now, doubt any of us could come close to finding it on a map – if it is even on any maps – but what followed will live with all of us and had us all walking around with fixed grins for the entire night.

As the evening progressed, little groups of us would congregate in the middle of the chaos, shaking our heads, swapping stories and repeating phrases along the lines of “this is crazy”.

All on what should have been a routine day – eat up the miles heading south through Cote d’Ivoire with the capital city of Yamassoukoro as the main target before setting up camp ahead of a final dash to the beaches around Abidjan and settling in for Christmas.

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Village people – The chief looks slightly bemused by his early-morning visitors. And their gift of biscuits

The previous couple of days had been routine since rolling away from five days of relative luxury in Bamako. Days on the truck had been subdued and even our two bush camps, either side of a pretty straightforward border crossing punctuated by the latest in a string of temperature checks in the fight against ebola, had seen us all head to our sleeping bags early.

But rather than head straight onto the truck after breakfast, we headed the couple of hundred yards to the adjacent village – as arranged with the chief when he became the latest caller to camp the night before – for a quick visit.

Initial wariness among some of the villagers was soon replaced with a warm welcome and smiles, especially with the now traditional showing of our cameras for them to see the pictures they were starring in – always guaranteed to raise a laugh.*

Having paid our respects to the chief (not sure quite what he made of the packet of biscuits), we piled back on the truck to make our way down the track to the road. Only to pile straight back off again moments later as a puncture ripped through the side of one of the tyres.

With Steve largely occupied under the truck, we felt pretty safe getting our cameras out to catalogue the moment as he and Joe carried out the necessary repairs and had us back on the road in half an hour.

And we thought that was the excitement for the day, bar unexpectedly rich pickings at a store for a quick stock-up and a cook group stop for the night ahead which sparked much confusion with the three-way translation between French, English and Japanese in the market.

One of our current cook group knows what he is doing around food. The other doesn’t. One of us speaks Japanese, but very little English and no French. One of us speaks no Japanese and, despite an A Level pass years ago, only enough confident Francais to order a beer and the simplest of items (plus useless stuff about working as a douanier at an airport and owning a cat called Miki).

Not sure we quite bought what we needed (or that either of us knew exactly what the other was intending to cook), but we did succeed in finding the best bread of the trip.

The plan was to rustle up some form of pasta dish when we pulled up for the night’s stop, which appeared imminent when we turned right off the main road to the capital and onto a dirt track which  was supposed to take us to a lakeside camp for the evening.

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Welcome party – The children of Yodibikro greet the big yellow truck

Where it did take us was down some narrow avenues between trees which saw more foliage and insects pitched into the back of the truck and through a series of small villages nestled in gaps between the lush vegetation which has sprung up as we have headed south from Mali.

Last of those was Yodibikro.

Originally, it was just to drive through the IMG_3187customary smiling, waving, if bemused, locals as the big yellow truck made its way down the road, white faces looking out and waving back at them.

But with the lake showing no signs of revealing itself (it never did), Joe and Steve took the decision to do a quick about turn and see if the village was a possible camp.

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Cook group – Jiro and I battle manfully to cook up a meal among the crowds. And other distractions…

By now, the crowds had grown – largely children running and smiling along the side of the truck who, we were told, had never seen white people before – and as Joe stumbled across the one man in the village who spoke English, he and Steve were escorted off, with Michael as translator, for an audience with the village elders.

While they considered and voted on our situation, we remained on the truck surrounded by a crowd of smiling faces, who broke into cheers every time a camera flashed.

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How many for dinner? – Waiting for the food drew an audience

Eventually, our delegation returned with the news we were camping right there in the heart of the village and we decamped into the excited throng to set up the kitchen and prepare the evening meal ringed by an audience five or six deep held back – not always successfully – by a semi-circle of plastic chairs, which appeared from nowhere, for us and various tribal elders.

Cooking really doesn’t get much tougher than producing food for the 19 of us, plus the handful of villagers considered important enough to get a seat, under the watchful, rowdy (but never threatening), cheering throng, all while sat next to a roaring fire in sweltering conditions with the whole of our group mixing a helping hand with grabbing as many pictures with our hosts as they could and generally soaking up this impromptu magic moment. One or two even had marriage proposals.

All with one or two whisky-related complications thrown in.

If our cooking and general behaviour entertained our hosts, the appearance of our tents took things to another level as we readied ourselves for bed.

My mosquito net, erected in seconds, with me settling down for a sweltering night wedged between the truck and the road drew a crowd all of its own.

But gradually, with a couple of villagers posted to stand guard around us and keep people away, the onlookers drifted away (or were ordered home by their parents) and we were left largely alone to reflect on a magical evening which could not have been planned and could not be replicated if you tried.

And that is why we travel.

* The locals are having to fight for starring roles in pictures with some of the livestock, particularly in the expanding series of pictures of goats in things. As well as the legendary goats in trees, we have had goats on a roof, goats on a bus, goats on graves, goats on a three-wheeled bike (albeit dead), goats on woodpiles and, in this particular village, a goat in a bowl. Missed goats on a pile of pottery.

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