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

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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £32,000 Uncapped

    £22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £10,000 Uncapped - Part Time

    £7500 - £10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness chai...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

    Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Sales / Customer Service Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: The role is likely to be 4on 4 off, days and ...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea