“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.