Trans Sotogrande to Ghana
Our ferry glided into Tangier on a bright chilly Tuesday morning the 30 th January 2007 . At last we are on our way on a journey dreamed about for years and intensively planned over recent months.
"We" includes my travelling buddy Alan Routledge a fellow Brit and business entrepreneur living close by in Sotogrande, He is also an experienced overlander, mechanic, motorbike fanatic and one of the funniest men on the planet. All attributes diametrically opposite to my own except for the overlanding!
Last year we travelled down to Timbuktu in Mali together and my own experiences have been built up over the last seven years in Morocco and West Africa. Alan's knowledge and experience are extensive but neither of us have done this journey before – to Cape Town driving all the way down the west coast of Africa
Morocco, Mauritania , Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon , Gabon, Congo , Cabinda, DRC, Angola and Namibia all have to be entered, crossed and exited before arrival into South Africa. To obtain the necessary visas and clear all the formalities is the major hassle of travelling in Africa as well as the corruption that really spoils this continent
The essential requirement for any overland journey is a vehicle and we had made a good choice. A Toyota Hilux with a twin cab and Truckman body on the pick up. This was a low mileage ex demonstrator vehicle from Toyota Gibraltar and came with many of the extras that we needed. Gas shock absorbers to assist the springs on the rough roads, high level jacking points to lift us out of mud & sand, an electric winch in case we need pulling out of difficult terrain, air conditioning to keep us cool, a high air intake nozzle if we need to cross rivers, a long range fuel tank to cover the distances, an onboard safe for our valuables and added security devices just in case. Maybe we did not need all these bells and whistles but we have them !
In the back of the truck we have our supplies to be self sufficient in terms of food, drink, tools, parts, extra fuel, tents, chairs etc etc . and on the roof rack we only carried two spare wheels but had created the ability to erect our tent and sleep up there if really necessary.
We were only a ninety minute drive and ferry ride away from our homes in Spain as we landed in Tangier but had already moved onto a new continent – Africa – where the sights, sounds and smells are entirely different from those of Europe.
Only last year we had covered the first 3000 miles/4800 km of our journey to Bamako in Mali so this year we planned to retrace the route at speed in only 7 days.
Morocco is a fascinating country undergoing huge changes as the new young King guides his country towards joining the EU in the next ten years. Part of his plan is to greatly increase tourism from Europe into his country to experience the Eastern culture, see their modern and ancient cities and visit the desert, mountains and coastal beaches on both the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Morocco is a safe country, officialdom is discreet and respectful and the people friendly and charming. The legendary hassle from the street hustlers had been minimised by the "tourist police" who strictly uphold the new laws. In the few years I have been visiting the country I have seen huge positive changes for the good.
Our first objective was to travel to Rabat the capital city to meet up with our Irish friends, Seamus Sorohan and Fiona Moran who are travelling with us in their Nissan Terrano. In Africa it is always better to travel with two cars, just in case…
Seamus and Alan are old overlanding and motorcycle buddies and Fiona an experienced motorcyclist and traffic cop from Dublin – I couldn't be travelling with a better team!
In Rabat we visited the consulates of Mali and Ghana to secure our visas, which delayed us for about 24 hours! No complaints as this was quick!
Morocco is 2600kms/1600 miles long with only one border crossing point into Mauritania (All Algerian borders have been closed for more than 10 years) This was my third time down this long road in less than 2 years so the distance had to be covered as soon as possible. We overnighted in Essaouira and Layoune but still arrived at the lonely border point in the Western Sahara a day behind schedule.
On arrival my heart sank as I saw maybe thirty vehicles at the border post and the teaming mass of overlanders who had spent hours endeavouring to clear police and customs formalities before nightfall. Alan in his chirpy style somehow jumped the queue and we were through in minutes, to my amazement and everyone else who noticed !
After clearing formalities in Morocco we left the tarmac and crossed into the 5 mile/8km no mans land to the border post of Mauritania. There can be few other borders like this in the world where you negotiate a minefield through a rocky landscape with no defined road. You are then immediately confronted with the corruption of Mauritania where the police and the customs officers blatantly demand gifts and bribes to enter their country. A firm shake of the head or pretence to not understand usually makes them back down but not always. Alternatively asking for a receipt sometimes stops them but at times you just have to pay – this is Africa!
The first town in the sparsely populated Mauritania is Nouadhibou, which is as near "God forsaken" as anywhere I have ever seen, but remarkably it was not quite as bad as I remembered. Yes the harbour is full of huge abandoned ships and it is one of the car wreck capitals of the world. However, we have now found the best place in town to stay and the restaurant I quickly exited last time as being too disgusting to eat at actually served a tolerable meal. Standards are improving in Nouadhibou or maybe my expectations are getting even lower.
Our dash down through Morocco had been hampered by gloomy skies, heavy rain and chilly temperatures but as we zoomed across the Sahara under blue skies the temperature started rising. Strong winds from the north whipped the sand across the new road and we easily averaged 100km/hr on our way to the capital city Nouackchott, 5 hours away.
Remember this journey took me three days only 2 years ago when we crossed the desert then dodged the waves as we cruised down the Atlantic beach at low tide in a 1992 Ford Sierra—another story. The Chinese have built this new road in Mauritania and are investing their time and money throughout Africa on infrastructure projects. They are also actively courting the leaders of the African Nations and very recently 48 Heads of State attended a summit in Beijing to discuss further cooperation.
I had a business call in the afternoon to meet with the remarkable Nancy Abeiderrahmane MBE, who founded and operates Tiviski Dairy the largest dairy in the country. Whilst born in England and a proud holder of the British passport she has had an amazing life living in many countries before settling in Mauritania and establishing her business in 1989 that today employs 230 people.
Nancy had been experiencing technical problems with a machine bought from Moody's and she fairly me a blasting - the buck stops with me at the end of the day.
However she was very gracious to my travelling companions and we over indulged with camel milk, yoghurt, desserts and ice cream.
Alan and I were both kitted out to tour the dairy and created maximum hilarity and photo opportunities as we donned the shmeg (?) the Arabian headdress. Our visit ended with a photo opportunity for me with Nancy standing in front of the shiny new Mercedes tanker truck.
We all then went out off to the beach to see the amazing sight of the long boat fishing fleet running up onto the beach. Young fish porters then ran into the sea to carry the catch ashore in baskets above their heads. This is a sight to be seen and will never be forgotten.
We had 1000 miles/1600 km of good roads to cross Mauritania stopping over a total of three nights including Noakchott (the capital) and Kiffa.
Mauritania is also fairly flat like most of the African continent. Out in the east of the country near Ayoun there are spectacular sandstone cliffs and rocks and we stopped a while to explore.
On this part of our journey we have little time to waste and we were already one day behind our schedule to reach Bamako in Mali.
We did not suffer the serious breakdown of one of the vehicles as we did last year when we spent 2 days towing a Nissan Patrol 550 km over sandy tracks out of Mauritania to Bamako in Mali.
At the Mauritanian border post we had our first glitch – we were asked for our insurance certificate and he quite correctly detected that it was not authentic – it was not!
At every border post you are obliged to purchase local insurance for the period you are in the country, which is expensive and no doubt worthless – a scam. This year with the help of our overlanding friends John and Ari we produced our own insurance certificate for the whole of Africa and we had been rumbled. The officer threatened to turn us back to Ayoun, eighty miles away to the insurance office or a small cadeaux (gift) of €10 would see us through – guess what we did ?
We crossed into Mali at Nioro and found the greatly improved roads of last year with all but 100kms of road now tarmaced. This was a 13 hour day that got us into Bamako exactly on schedule – we had caught up the day lost in Rabat.
We stayed at the Mande Hotel, a faded colonial hotel on the banks of the River Niger away from the bustle of the city. We took a well-earned rest day doing a few jobs on the vehicles and generally lounging about. Unfortunately this is the day they chose to empty the swimming pool and issue the builders with big hammers to bang all day. None the less, day 8 was very restful.
At last on day 9 we were onto new roads and not repeating last years journey. Our planned early departure slipped again but we had a very good day but longer than expected.
Our 1000km journey across Mali took us from the arid scrub of the east into the equatorial zone in the west.
The border formalities from Mali to Burkina Faso were painless and fairly quick, as we had also to secure visas and another page gone in the passport.In Europe today you rarely get a stamp in your passport but in Africa you need a visa and receive multiple entry and exit stamps that are all carefully scrutinised at both borders and the inland check points that abound in many countries
BF is one of the poorest countries in the world yet the people seemed happy, well fed and extremely friendly.The lack of police and security forces was also noticed in this relaxed country.
We made a bar stop just over the border and we were the centre of attention for the locals for a while. As Fiona said at the time I looked "very happy out" at the time sitting under a thatched shade drinking a beer and eating a banana !
We stayed in the L'Auberge Hotel in Bobo, the second city of BF – a very good choice with a swim in the pool before venturing out to Les Bambous, a restaurant with an amazing bongo band. We liked Bobo!
On our journey we had been planning to meet up with Ian & Jacqueline another overlanding couple we had met a couple of times before. They had left ten weeks earlier and we discovered Ian had been hospitalised with malaria and pneumonia in Ouagadougou. We became extra vigilant about our anti malaria precautions with this news! J&I are now considering their options and may ship their Landrover from Accra to South Africa instead of taking on the arduous overland trek south.
We were excited about the prospects of day 10 – our arrival into Ghana . But it turned into a very stressful and long day.
Our departure time slipped again as Seamus had turned back having left his phone at the hotel. We had decided on a cross-country route, which was our mistake – 400 km on tracks is not a fun day.
The border post into Ghana at Hamale is little used and a great sight for us with a "Welcome to Ghana" arch under which we entered the country. This was the first English speaking country where we could hold a conversation without shrugging our shoulders and shaking our heads when addressed in French in all the other countries.
This was the first border where our car carnet was requested and of course ours was a little unusual, as they had never seen one like ours before !
A carnet is a fairly standard document issued by motoring organisations such as the AA/RAC and is basically a promissory note that we are in transit and that we will be exporting our car from their country in due course. You leave a cash deposit with the issuer and if you do not export the vehicle from the country you are in they casn claim an importation tax from the issuer.
Ours is a Gibraltar registered vehicle – they have no AA/RAC so we got the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce to issue us with a carnet especially adapted for our car – it is normally issued for goods only. All slightly irregular but saves a fortune on costs for us.
The customs officers of Ghana were perplexed with this document but somehow we persuaded them to stamp and accept it and we slipped into the country. We are expecting trouble with this carnet further down the road.
Just into Ghana we stopped in the bush to brew our Barry's tea and cook a few baked beans. Poor Seamus had been feeling unwell since our previous night out at the bongo drums restaurant. As we were preparing to leave our halting place he had an accident – a bodily eruption that resulted in him abandoning his pants! He was not well.
The roads and tracks started getting worse and nightfall came soon after six and we were miles from our destination and getting tired.
African countries are peppered with customs and police posts, even out in the wild. We rolled up to a customs post after dark and the officers were already out of uniform and relaxing around a fire and were most surprised to see us in the middle of nowhere. They checked our documents and on we went.
We were running parallel with the BF border for more than 100 miles and the area was little populated. We came to a rickety bridge and I made Alan stop and reverse onto the bridge for a photo opportunity a/la Indiana Jones experience.
A little further on we came to another bridge and this time there was a rope across the road and we stopped. A man with a SMG (sub machine gun) approached – I wound down the window and he leaned in and had a good look. He was not in a uniform and as my eyes became accustomed to the dark I could see other men around a tree. He said that there were night time's robberies on this road and two travellers had just been murdered at this very spot. I was still unsure who he was but was hoping that he was police – and he was.
We zoomed over the bridge and off into the night and the road got worse. A few miles further on the driver of an apparently broken down vehicle tried to flag us down but good Samaritans that night we were not.
Miles and miles further on we were stopped again and this time the police were in uniform – a relief!
We eventually reached civilisation – electric lights is our definition and finally made it back to the tarmac. No more cross country and night driving for us – stick to main routes and be camped by dark.
From Bolgaanga we headed for Kumasi the old capital city of Ghana and despite leaving early the journey expanded to fill the day and we arrived just as it got dark. A tropical storm set in and we reflected how we would have made out the previous evening with monsoon conditions.
Kumasi has quite a colonial feel to it and reminded me of Zimbabwe. It was the former Capital city in the days when the country was called The Gold Coast.
Saturday morning's project was to sort out our flights for the journey home. We were at the agents before 9 and they did not arrive till nearly 11. The frustrations continued as their computers system crashed and by the time they closed we had made no progress whatsoever. We adjourned to a local hotel then tried to sort out the arrangements ourselves on the Internet to no avail.
By 2pm we decided we must get on the road again to the coast. We were travelling south and the countryside became progressively more equatorial. Interestingly to the north of Kumasi the village homes were made of mud with thatched roofs and to the south they were made of block with tin roofs. We had also moved into the gold mining areas and assume the wealth of the region was reflected in the housing.
It was turning dark as we arrived at our chosen coastal destination Elmina, where we were deflated to discover that all hotels in the area were booked due to the Miss Ghana 2007 beauty pageant taking place that evening.
We had no option but to press on to Takoradi and book into the Splendid Planters Lodge Hotel – a very good choice. Dinner was excellent at Joys Chinese Restaurant overlooking the waves of the Atlantic – as always it is great to be on the coast.
Sunday was a wonderful day making the short drive up the coast to Birsua We parked and walked along the idyllic beach deserted of tourists. We chose our accommodation on the beach – the Birsua Inn built and run by a French couple. Our rooms had a private terrace with stunning views and the crashing of the waves made this a superb choice.
We wandered over the headland to the Dix Cove and had a tour of the slave fort – one of 34 along the coast.
12 million slaves were reputed to have been shipped from these shores to the Americas . Many nations traded slaves and it was the Africans themselves who captured and sold natives to the traders. A sad chapter in history first outlawed by the British and only very recently outlawed by the Mauritanians. A chain of forts string 500 kms along the Ghana coastline including Elmina Castle the oldest built in 1482.
The Birsua Inn boasted French cuisine and we ordered the special lobster and crevettes with chilled wine for a special dinner – regrettably nothing lived up to expectations except the location !
However we had had a thoroughly relaxing day on a most stunning coast.
The following morning we headed to Takoradi to secure our return air tickets. Saturdays experience on the same mission was useless and again we faced the frustrations of doing the most simple transaction.
We were the only customers in the office. They insisted on payment in cash and our single tickets were 6,440,800 cedis each!! We exchanged a few euro notes for a carrier bag of Ghana currency at the bank and on return to the office discovered they could not issue tickets ! On trust we handed over the bags of cash with the promise of tickets in Accra and five hours later re-entered sunlight growling like lions!
The next morning Alan and I went to check out the Green Turtle Lodge, an eco friendly simple resort established by a young English couple on yet another idyllic beach. All travellers in the know rave about this place for good reason. As well as its location the simple and good life are in abundance in this area. Maybe the reason that in the last year alone seven couples overlanding have abandoned their journeys and are making it their home-- Shang ri La.
We too are in love with the place and area and plan to return.
We caught up with S&F at the Cape Coast Castle one of the premier visitor attractions of Ghana. It was the major slaving port for this region and the tour and museum was both interesting and chilling. The British forces actually occupied this fort until 1957.
Outside we were accosted by a young man raising funds for his soccer team and an idea clicked.
We had a full set of football kit for a junior team donated by Kevin Dennis, the coach for the Sotogrande International School soccer teams. All are branded Blackburn Rovers and my son Will is the number one Rovers supporter (probably the only one) in Sotogrande !
The young man was Richad, a seventeen year old and as requested he took us to meet his coach at the football stadium.
Kofi Amuah is a school teacher with a passion for helping "street kids". In Ghana education is compulsory until the age of 13 then has to be paid for – as a consequence, many drop out of school and become "street kids"
Football is the game of choice for the "street kids" and they can be seen playing with passion everywhere.
Kofi recruits these kids into his soccer teams and gives them discipline and hope for the future, helping many back into full time education.
Michael Essien, the Chelsea player, was a "street kid" and is the idol and role model of all. Michael was recruited into the club and with their guidance progressed to play for Ghana as a teenager were he was spotted by the European football scouts and the rest is history.
I made a presentation of the full set of kit for a team to Kofi, his club chairman and secretary on behalf of the privileged youth of Sotogrande to the "street kids" of Cape Coast and I plan to return.
Night was falling as we left the stadium and the hunt was on for somewhere to stay.
At this time of year there is a power shortage in Ghana . Most electricity is produced by hydro electricity power and February is at the end of the dry season and the waters in the Lake Volta are low. As a consequence, every fifth day one region of Ghana has no power and this was that day in the Cape Coast region.
We were driving for four hours in the direction of Accra before we reached electricity and our definition of civilisation. The weather was extremely hot and humid and a night without an electric fan would have been unbearable.
Day 16 was our penultimate day in Ghana and the challenge was to find secure parking for our vehicles until we can return in April or even later.
Nothing is easy in Africa and today's task was daunting! We found a campsite where we could have left them as a last resort but it was far from ideal. We even tried the Guinness Brewery in Accra but to no avail.
By chance we met a man in the streets – George Addo. At the time we were asking policeman directions but as he drove by George thought we were being accosted for a bribe so he pulled over and offered his assistance.
George is an Auctioneer and Bailiff and very smart in appearance. He had lived in Germany for 25 years and had never had a bother with the authorities in Europe. He said he was appalled at the way Europeans are accosted in Ghana for bribes hence he was a Good Samaritan.
He offered us the opportunity to park in his secure compound if we could not find anywhere and as we couldn't, we took him up on the offer. We first called at Police Headquarters and Fiona, our Dublin cop ascertained that we could legally leave our vehicle in Ghana for a while and that George was kosher!
We met Janet (George's wife) who is a Judge and their sons and parked up and secured our vehicles as dusk was falling.
In sixteen days we had crossed five countries, covered 7400 kms/4600 miles and bought 988 litres of diesel
All had gone to plan, no undue problems along the way, never a cross word between us and great memories on the first stage of our journey.
On Thursday the 15 th February we all flew out of Accra to Casablanca where we split up for Ireland and Spain to resume our normal lives until the next time.
The journey will resume soon……………………….…past the equator to The Gabon