Travel: Tinkling along the Ivory

Once he cut through the masses of red tape, Stephen Wells found a warm African welcome in the former French colony of Cote d'Ivoire
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The Independent Online
The airport official had a pistol at his side, and looked menacing. Tentatively I pleaded: "But my guidebook said I didn't need a visa." Unimpressed, he led me into his office. They said Africa was all about meeting people, but this was probably not what they had in mind. French is the official language of this ex-colony, so I tried to resurrect my A-level skills and searched in my phrase book for "I'm new around here. Let me know when I am supposed to bribe you, monsieur."

I paid for my error in time rather than money. After a few hours of mind-melting bureaucracy, I was allowed out on condition that I spent the next two days visiting every civil service department in town, collecting all manner of stamps and signatures.

Outside the airport that will welcome the first DC-10 direct from Gatwick tomorrow, Cote d'Ivoire is a vivacious country bursting with energy. The people are complete jokers, the sun shines, and it is a fresh fruit fiesta. Men wear long robes called boubous and the women are wrapped in endless tracts of dazzling material. A few surprises have to be expected, though. Not many people come here, so the guidebooks can be rather dated. You are more likely to bump into Andy Kershaw than Jill Dando.

I began my walking tour of Abidjan, hoping to take in some of the other attractions apart from the government offices. This, the most prosperous French colony, used to be called the Paris of West Africa. It is a modern city with skyscrapers, supermarkets and traffic jams.

There are plenty of reasonable places to stay for just a few pounds. If you want opulence, then there is the famous Hotel Ivoire for about pounds 50 a night. The city is next to a 100-mile-long lagoon, on the other side of which is the old capital of Grand Bassam. Here there are limitless stretches of tranquil Atlantic beaches with faded colonial houses among the palm trees. The sleepy remains of a bygone era give the place a relaxing, timeless air.

Although it is called the "Ivory Coast", there are not the masses of wildlife that you find in East Africa. The main attraction is meeting people and this is best done away from Abidjan. So, visas in hand, my friend and I abandoned luxury and headed inland. We found a gradual transition in washing facilities, from en-suite bathrooms to en-corridor bathrooms to en-bucket bathrooms. The road system was good, though, and we took a bus for 150 miles for 2,000CFA (about pounds 3).

Most countries in what used to be French West Africa have the CFA (Communaute Financiere Africaine) as their currency. French francs can be changed anywhere, but outside Abidjan you may as well throw away your dollars, sterling and traveller's cheques.

We bought a wooden set of African backgammon called awali and acquired a never-ending source of friends.

If French had not been widely spoken then we would have been lost, since every town seems to have its own local language.

Ivorians are a hospitable bunch, and we were invited to stay with several families. We were served a traditional meal of atieki (a cassava tuber dried, grated and steamed into submission to produce a type of couscous). It is meant to be eaten with the hands. This was clearly impossible, so we entertained our hosts by making an irredeemable mess of our clothes, then wiping ourselves down with some disposable traveller's cheques.

For dessert there was fried plantain. The huge fruit are like savoury bananas on steroids.

Then we left for Yamoussoukro, which became the capital 15 years ago. Houphoukt-Boigny (let's call him Hoofy for now), the president from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993, decided that it would be nice to have his home village as the capital. I guess it made juggling state commitments and visiting the relatives easier. He ploughed a vast amount of money into it, but all my favourite government departments have stayed in Abidjan.

The city has a presidential palace, surrounded by a crocodile filled moat, and a virtually empty luxury hotel called (surprisingly) Hotel President. The most amazing construction here is the basilica. It is almost identical to St Peter's in the Vatican, and is the tallest church in Christendom. It is a bizarre sight, rising out of the African bush. It cost a staggering pounds 200m and has 36 stained-glass windows, hand-blown by the best makers in France, stretching up 30 metres from the floor. If you foolishly think that Africa is nothing but mud huts, then this is the place to come.

Out of the equatorial sun, we relished the air conditioning, whilst admiring the beautiful marble and granite. Finding a free seat was no problem; there were 7,000 of them, and only a handful of people worshipping.

Since Hoofy's death, there has been a relatively smooth transition to a democratically elected leader with more down-to-earth ideas and a more pronounceable surname.

To travel further north we took the train. Its state of repair has freewheeled downhill for many years but it is still called the Express (that Ivorian humour again). The scenery changes from patches of rainforest to open savannah. Sellers assault the train at every station and women come up with mountainous trays of mangoes on their heads. When the sun beats down, a mango hat is definitely worth having. You can buy your own body weight of bananas for next to nothing, provided you are not paying in dollars.

The train journey was rather confusing since all towns seem to end in "dougou". We passed Ngolodougou, Komborodougou and Ferkessidougou. The train was heading for Ouagadougou, across the border in Burkina Faso, but we got off at Ouangolodougou, solely on the grounds of its having, to our Western eyes, the most ridiculous name.

One day there will be souvenir stands here selling T-shirts with "I've taken the Ouangolodougou choo-choo". Nearby there are bustling markets, where we haggled for carved wooden masks and painted cloth. It is a nice area to while away some time and perfect the art of eating atieki, if you have not yet admitted defeat and accepted the spoon offered to foreigners.

Eventually we reached the border with Mali. Land borders are much less hassle than airports. An Ivorian woman on our bus did not have the right papers, so paid for a pillion ride on the back of a scooter through the bush, and rejoined the road a few miles past the customs post.

Cote d'Ivoire is a rewarding country to visit. The travelling is easy and cheap. The climate is cooler than you may imagine, with temperatures generally only in the high twenties all year round, and you can stay healthy if you take the usual precautions. The people are welcoming, but unless government offices particularly fascinate you, it is probably best to buy a visa before you go.

Into the Ivory Coast

Getting there

The new British Airways non-stop flight from Gatwick to Abidjan begins tomorrow and operates on Wednesdays and Sundays thereafter. The lowest official fare direct from the airline is pounds 902, but through discount agents such as Bridge the World (0171-911 0900) it is being sold for pounds 539 (including taxes) from April to June.

More information

British passport holders require a visa. To get one, write to the Embassy of the Cote d'Ivoire, 2 Upper Belgrave Street, London SW1 (0171-235 6991). You must complete two application forms, supply two photographs and pay pounds 40.