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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


The Bong In Your Reggae Song

OFFICIAL advice from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is against all travel to most of Mali and all but “essential travel” to the southern part of the country.

Quite what constitutes “essential travel” is not clearly defined, but when our path round the coast is blocked by the decision to avoid the countries hit hardest by ebola and the north of the country is a no-go area, heading through the capital Bamako is pretty essential for us to continue our journey around Africa.

And after a week in the country, it has proved a fairly essential part of the trip.

Clear reminder - Why we were diverted through Mali in the first first place
Clear reminder – Why we were diverted through Mali in the first first place

It helps that our Bamako base for the last five nights has been stocking up its fridge with beer deliveries and can provide a decent range of meals and cocktails – the latter reserved, largely, for the nightly happy hour.

What road? – One of the smoother parts which greeted us on the journey through Mali

Spending too much time in the bar has not always been the best idea for those in mosquito tents who had to scale a rickety wooden ladder (made even more precarious by me breaking one of the rungs, leading to a welcome banishment to the main garden) to sleep on a roof overlooking the adjoining German Embassy.

But after such creature comforts and death-defying journeys to bed, we are relaxed, well rested, clean, clutching Nigerian visas in our passports and itching to get back on the road as we turn south again to head to our Christmas rendezvous with a beach.

Mali had already made an impact before we pulled up into the capital as the word road took on a whole new definition.

Watching on – Oasis recommend you wear your seatbelt at all times. Yeah, right

It was pretty smooth sailing as we headed over the Senegal border fairly easily – fortified by a woman selling very welcome baguettes full of cooked meat outside the police station as we waited for our passports – and into Mali on reasonable roads.

Waiting for the ferry – Karla meets the locals as we prepare to cross the Senegal River

The surface held up to our shopping stop in the main western town of Kayse (where we discovered that while choice may not be wide, it is very affordable, and that Malians seem to enjoy little more than parading in great moped convoys) and beyond to our overnight bush camp.

So being thrown around could not really be blamed for the upset stomach which created a long, dark night under the stars and ensured there was little chance of me joining in as the first dents were made in our well-stocked beer eskie almost straight after breakfast.

Cooling off – Making up for the lack of a shower in the Senegal River

The roads continued to be fine until we hit the Senegal River ferry crossing, the wait for which was enlivened by the reaction of crowds of children to their pictures appearing on our cameras.

It was smiles all round as we rolled onto the ferry, but one or two of them may have disappeared as we rolled off.

The road had certainly vanished.

Cheers – Martyn, left, and I toast our arrival in Mali. Yep, let’s say that’s what we were doing

Steve had warned us that his previous journey along this route had been slow and arduous – and he insists it is much better now – so we should have been prepared.

Tough job – Steve, above, and Joe, below, have another taxing day on the River Niger

At times, we followed the old railway track, while at others we picked out the only narrow gap available through the trees, ensuring we had to be alert in the back to dodge the protruding branches and leaves – not always with a great deal of success – while crossing a series of dried-up streams and rivers ensured for a bumpy afternoon (when remarkably little beer was spilled).

At least once, the road disappeared completely, forcing a quick about turn and detour through some bush to rejoin the former railway line.

No sooner had we actually found a stretch of road than Steve pulled off onto another SAM_0727track, but this time with a purpose, a stop allowing us to cool off (and make up for a few days without showers) with a swim in the Senegal River.

A pretty idyllic way to spend the afternoon and we could have stayed there a lot longer, but for the need to press on towards Bamako.

Local transport – Up close and personal after a few beers in Bamako

A sore back – not helped by a tumble down a bank as we hopped off the bus for a comfort stop – cook group duties (an ambitious pasta bake which pretty much paid off) and the lingering effects of the upset stomach ensured my first night at The Sleeping Camel on the banks of the Niger River was rather more subdued than those who headed out to a local nightspot.

Local landmark – The footballing hippo near the hostel. Nope, no idea either…

While those of us who remained set about building a solid base for our bar bills and settling in to our new surroundings, those who ventured out came back with tales to tell of a fairly riotous evening. Well, those who returned before breakfast did.

And so began a relaxed few days as we extended our stop to sort out more visas, a stream of trips to the bar for more cokes, beers, cocktails and food mixed in with film and trivia nights at the hostel, plus a variety of excursions ito check out what downtown Bamako has to offer.

On first sight, not a lot. But it is a bustling, noisy, dusty – typical African – city which rewards those who take the time to look around.

One journey into the markets even produced our own spirit guide who went by the unlikely name of Bob Marley, the rasta from Mali, who may not be too good a judge of how far a couple of hundred metres is, but was certainly true to his word in pointing out a good place to have lunch – although quite what he had during the lunch break we can only guess at, judging by the state of him when we bumped into him again later.

His recommendation – the same one given to a group for their meal that evening – was rather more successful than the one given to a party of us the next night.

There was nothing wrong with the look of the place the taxis dropped us outside, nor what was on the menu nor the prices. They just didn’t serve alcohol.

So instead of dining at one of Bamako’s top restaurants, we stopped for a beer in a dark shack over the road and ate outside a cafe with a mixture of their own food and bags of meat (goat, we think) picked up from a street vendor down the road.

But our final stop was the highlight of the evening. Titi Marmite’s barely qualified as a bar, more a small store next to a general shop selling cans of beer on what basically constituted a traffic island, complete with a few plastic chairs outside and locals on mopeds zooming on and off the road on either side.

It was basic, cheap, great fun and was once more met with smiles and a friendly welcome from the locals.

Which was more than can be said for the taxi rides home, which headed out of town before we finally convinced them they were going the wrong way and a lengthy debate ensued about exactly where we wanted to go.

Reto’s fairly polished French and my scratchy interventions discovered that our driver not only had no idea where The Sleeping Camel was, but seemingly denied all knowledge of the German Embassy, the nearby Pont des Martyrs and even the Niger River. None of us attempted a translation of “turn left at the footballing hippo”.

Our group trip the next night, to mark Linda’s birthday, was rather more successful in finding our way around – starting with a relaxing, sunset boat trip down the Niger with eskies full of cold beers helping to get things off to a flying start.

A blissful way to spend an early evening, but reminders of just why we are not really meant to be there lurk as jarring pillars of reality – the impressive building courtesy of cash from Gaddafi’s Libya next to the home of a former president sentenced to death three times, standing side by side on the river with the rubbish-strewn banks among which many of the locals live, wash and do their best to exist.

A few more beers followed over a couple of other stops as we were ferried around town in one of the ubiquitous green vans that carry the locals around, invariably with at least one of two people hanging from the open doors.

Our evening came to an end, at various different times, with some live music that bid us a tuneful farewell to an unexpectedly vibrant, essential stop.


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