Monday, 16 April 2012

12th - Burkina Faso

As predicted one of the trucks wouldn't start. This theme was becoming so familiar that we simply accepted it and went about trying to find a mechanic. Miraculously this time one was able to find a Nissan component to replace the clutch cylinder. Therefore our confidence in that truck began to grow a little.

By noon we had arrived at the infamous Bamako. It was in some ways, quite an attractive city. The irony here was that my navigation let us down a little (I could be defensive here and report that this was rare!). We had to do a U-turn in the entrance to a military compound. It wasn't until next day that Nick explained this was where the coup had started on 21st March and where, until very recently, they had held some politicians as prisoners. The term "staring into the lion's mouth" is conjoured in my mind.

Keen to make it to Ouagadougou (Ouaga) by night fall we pushed on, passing border controls between Mali and Burkina Faso with relative ease, or was it simply because we were becoming familiar with the complex bureaucratic processes?

By 5pm, Bob was concerned about pushing on too much because the road conditions were not brilliant. Personally I just wanted to get to Ouaga becuase I had a flight booked for home the next evening and I simply didn't want to risk either truck not starting. Therefore we pushed on but it was as though an invisible force was teasing us with our naive plans by presenting us with torrential rain, impressive lightening and deviations so off piste, at one stage I thought we had got lost in some woodland.

During this last lap I looked at the landscape and people we passed. The children walking home from school with their smart uniforms, the less fortunate ones walking around with tins slung over their shoulder asking for food from passers by, women cycling long distances with high stacks of wood on their crossbars or walking elegantly along the side of the road balancing a bowl heavy with fruit.

I saw the subtle order of the villages as we flew past, with evening activity begin to form round campfires. I smelt the wood smoke cooking their meals in oil. The sun was setting over the increasingly lush vegetation whose colours contrasted with the red oche of the soil. I had tears of happiness, relief and sadness rolling down my face. The majority of people we came across over the last 3 weeks were the most warm, inviting and helpful individuals we could ever hope to have met, yet we had hesitated because of the areas of conflict somewhere else. It was so sad because I felt these people were dammed despite themselves.

10pm and we finally made it to Ouaga. My journey, at least, was over. We had made it.

It took me quite a while for this significance to sink in since the last week in particular had been more taxing than any of us had anticipated. Even now as I finish this blog from the UK I can't quite believe it all happened.

I am so grateful to all my family, friends and colleagues for their undying support throughout this trip and I am particularly grateful to Nick, Bob and Ben who have been wonderful to work with during the last 3 weeks.

It has truely been a memorable experience and hopefully will help to save lives of deserving people.

11th - Sikasso

The dawn light saw 3 dishevelled travellers emerge reluctantly from their trucks. Our plan was to tow my truck with the other one to the nearest village only a few kilometres further on. Neither truck would start. I  could not believe the bad luck we were having. I hitched a lift to the next village with Bob -  a truck stopped immediately for us. Within the hour we had found (yet another) mechanic, hitched back to the trucks, got one started and towed the 2nd back to his village. The hospitality of everyone was striking. I simply could not reconcile the help and smiles we received with the international news reports of riots and looting.

By this time I think we were becoming accommodated to the fact that (a) truck fails; (b) mechanic is found; (c) truck gets fixed.

And so in this mode we made our way to Sikasso, our last stop in Mali for the night. We found a large hotel reminiscent of a Disney world stage setting where the attempts to portray prosperity just somehow missed the mark. However it provided us with showers, which were heavenly, cool beer and food. Slowly we began to feel more human barely trusting what tomorrow may bring.

10th Diema, Mali

With an early start and feeling refreshed we set off eager to make up time for our prolonged stay in Senegal. At the 1st fuel stop a puncture became apparent. The ease with which this was repaired undermined the series of mechanical problems we were about to face. Within 50km the 2nd truck developed an electrical fault.

  I soon began to realise the value of working with people who had a skill and tenacity to work with most problems - vehicle breakdown was a common incident in Africa because of the harsh road and hot weather conditions they were being driven in.

By this time the ambient temperature was not far off 50 deg C again. I had to keep diving into the shed of the petrol station to try and cool down.

Eventually we were on the road again, after several false starts, having to recall the mechanic back to make further adjustments. We reached Diema near dusk. We were dirty, tired and incredibly thirsty. The water we were drinking, while bottled, was not much cooler than the ambient temperature and did little to assuage our thirst since we were sweating salt as well as water from our bodies. Bob disappeared off to find accommodation for the night. Meanwhile we sought out sources of clean fuel. We were advised that some of the local "gas" stations probably contaminated some of their pumps with water, so breakdowns from this were not uncommon.

When Bob reported that the best hotel he could find had no electricity (therefore no fan or AC),  the rooms were cramped and the beds looked questionable we all decided to push on to Bamako even if it took us until midnight to reach it. What an irony - aiming for a city which hitherto we had feared to enter by day, never mind by night.

I took a nap as Nick drove my truck for the 1st 2 hours - I then took over around 10:30pm.

Half an hour later disaster struck. Doing 80 km/hr I hit a pothole spanning the road. My truck skidded to a halt and as I tried to hit the clutch to put into neutral I couldn't find the peddle. Initially I thought it had dropped through the floor of the car. What actually happened was that I had managed to crack the clutch cylinder, therefore the truck was completely caput.

We were, by then too spent to think of anything but sleep. Feeling disgusting with dirt and licking our dried, salty lips we made sleeping areas as much as we could in both trucks and feel asleep until daylight.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

9th - Crossing the Mali border

We arrived at the border crossing only to be challenged by confusing processes and hidden customs offices positioned in the depths of the local village.

Thr real challenge came at the Mali border where over 600 huge trucks queued up to pass into the country. Desperate to try and bypass them I walked over 1 km in high winds and dense dust with temperatures approaching 50 deg C. to find a way through. It transpired that we could drive off piste to the Mali customs and police. By way of brief explanation, there was more bureaucracy with the cars than with us because of the active illegal trade in importing cars for sale and bypassing taxes.

2 & 1/2 hours later we were through, much quicker than we had planned. The rest of the day was taken up driving through arid land with flat light - vegetation was sparce and almost dead. The other significant challenge was the appauling conditions of the roads. The frequency and size of potholes made us appreciate the inadvertent preparation we received driving in the Sahara.

We arrived in Kayes, alleged to be the hottest town in Africa, partly owing to the fact that it is inland and surrounded by iron ore in the surrounding hills. The air temperature had not dropped much below 50 deg C even by sunset.

8th - Tambacounda

After spending an agonising morning deciding how safe Mali was, we decided "to go in". This decision was not as rash as you may think - we were able to talk to a contact currently living in Bamako, where the alleged lootings had been reported. She was confident in assuring us that all was well with S. Mali and that we should be fine. Reluctant to turn away and leave the other 2 to continue on their own, I accepted quickly before I gave myself a chance to say "No".

What I hadn't accounted for was that neither trucks would start. Seeing this as an omen, I was ready to resort to Plan A and prepared to return to Dakar to fly dirctly home. Unfortunately we managed to work out that the air filters, a vital item that needs clesning every day hsd been inserted by one of us (no - not me this time). Soon we were on our way towards the Mali border. We travelled long after dark, a risky undertaking given the number of lorries, bicycles and goats without lights. Eventually we found a wonderful haven of an hotrl where, unexpectedly, there was a swimming pool in which we swam under a starlit night - heaven.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

7th April Saly

Today we saw the departure of Ben following our heart-searched plans for getting out of Senegal if Mali failed as an option. Ben was dropped off at Dakar airport following horrrndous traffic flow. The 3 of us remaining prepared to leave for Saly, a Senegalese resort only 70 km south of Dakar. Even so it took us 5 hours to make 70 km for traffic aroudn the city.
After compkex and less than transparent negotiations on behalf of a local we ended up securing a comfortablr villa for the next 24 hours.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

6th April Dakar

We were awoken by a cacophony of bird song around 7am. Anxiety about our future plans were growing to the extent that this morning was taken up deciding exit strategies. I booked a flight home directly from Dakar to leave on 11th.

As a minor diversion we decided to take a short ferrry crossing to L'ile de Goree. We had a tour of this remarkable island which was a sentinal exporting point for 300 years of slave trade from many African countries. Members of each enslaved family were segregated- each group would then be sent to one of the principal sugar-cane empires, including Cuba, Brazil, Carribean and the US. It was a poignant reminder of the depth to which human nature can sink.