A risky route through Ivory Coast: Decades of neglect, yet a former glory remains

 

One guy grabbed the bag slung over my shoulder as his friend snatched the sunglasses from my face. They held me in place as a mob formed around us on the pavement and everyone started shouting.

This was my welcome to Abidjan, the largest city in Ivory Coast. What used to be one of the continent's wealthiest countries has been consistently plagued by civil strife. But I visited anyway while travelling through West Africa a few years ago.

Despite decades of neglect, Abidjan's 1970s-vintage high-rises still stood as a testament to the country's former glory. There were asphalt streets, concrete overpasses and street lights. These things seemed totally out of place to me in the region; no other city had looked as Western (albeit, circa 1971).

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a street with upscale shops after months of seeing only places where people burnt rubbish on dusty roads that were in darkness due to perpetual power failures. So I snapped a couple of pictures in front of a jewellery store. And that's when the bulky man who got hold of me – a security guard, as it turned out – and his friend started after me.

Just as it looked like things were going to get really ugly, I figured out what they were angry about and offered to delete the offending shot from my digital camera to appease them. It worked – they grudgingly let me go and the crowd drifted away.

I'd witnessed just how tense this divided country was. But it was only one of many hassles that I experienced. The journey through West Africa was sometimes dangerous, usually frustrating – yet always interesting and, ultimately, rewarding. Given the subsequent armed conflicts in several of the countries it's not a trip I'll be able – or willing – to do again.

Initially, I'd dragged my wife along but she flew home after we wandered into a riot in Burkina Faso. So I went overland alone, squeezing into bush taxis – seriously overcrowded Peugeots – that often broke down in the middle of long journeys and left me stranded under a searing sun.

I was chased by a gang in Lagos and shaken down by corrupt police everywhere – they seized my passport and detained me for hours over an invented reason when I entered Ivory Coast from Ghana.

My route involved heading to the Liberian border in Ivory Coast's north-west, crossing from the government-controlled south through a UN-manned buffer zone before entering the rebel-held north. I hitched a ride part-way with a trucker, then hired kids with motorcycles.

Uniformed police routinely stopped motorists in the south for bribes; at similar checkpoints in the north there were armed men wearing sweatpants. I had to buy a few expensive 'permits' before they let me through.

Along the way I stopped in the village of Yamoussoukro – the country's capital since its home-town hero President Félix Houphouet-Boigny named it as such in 1983. He built six-lane highways illuminated with thousands of streetlights – but they went nowhere because there were no embassies or industry there.

His legacy included the construction of the world's largest church, the extraordinary $300m Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix, a slightly taller version of St Peter's at the Vatican. And this, in a war-wracked country where people are so poor they eat margarine sandwiches for lunch.

The pristine basilica has 7,000 seats, air-conditioning and 36 stained-glass windows, of which one naturally features Houphouet-Boigny at the feet of Christ. It's one of the most amazing structures in Africa and apart from a tourist from Nigeria that I came across, I had it all to myself.

Suddenly, all the hassle involved in getting there seemed worth it.

Under African skies

* After more than a decade of misrule, travellers have been scared away from Zimbabwe; now safari tour operators are promoting the country again. It's entirely possible to make sure your money goes to local business. expertafrica.com

* Camp out in deserts and explore tombs, temples and pyramids: Sudan has it all. South Sudan has effectively been off-limits for decades but Africa's newest country is now part of a pioneering programme of tours. undiscovered-destinations.com

* Tunisia was the Phoenician colony of Carthage, the 'Granary of the Roman Empire' and the medieval Muslim province of Ifriqiyah. Tours have returned to this North African country, some dedicated to these ancient civilisations. the-traveller.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum