This is installment 3 of the Côte d'Ivoire crossing. I hope you're still enjoying this, there hasn't been much riding in the last posts but it'll get more interesting as I move my butt off the beach and into more remote (and little traveled) territory. As a recap here's a map of the country and my track.
Burkina Faso to Abidjan through Yamoussoukro is all on tar, getting better the closer to Abidjan. The coastal road toward Liberia is the same, getting very potholed not far away from Abidjan. I don't intend to go to Liberia, I'll skip this country as well as Sierra Leone for this time - I need a reason to come back, right ?
What's interesting me now is the road up from San Pedro to Man. It hugs the Liberian border in a part of the country that is remote, difficult to drive to, saw a lot of unrest due to the presence of Liberian mercenaries, but also crosses one of the last piece of equatorial forest in West Africa that hasn't been logged to death or replaced by plantations. All good reasons to get there (except for the restlessness part), aren't they ?
As soon as I take the turn-off north, the tar stops and the road turns to shit. I've escaped the rain these previous days and it's still a bit wet but very ridable. The weather is pretty cloudy but dry and I hope it'll stay like this. Although it's the dry season, in this part of the country it only means it doesn't rain every
day. That's the reason there is a rain forest in the first place.
I've fueled up and with my extra tank I'm good for at least 500 km, which should bring me to Man if I can't find any petrol on the way (nobody seems to know for sure when I asked).The forest is eerily beautiful, this is exactly what I've been looking for. Unlike Gabon, there are no logging truck to try and run you over (they crash on their own, see above), so it's just me, the bike and the nature. Oh, and the police.. it's the heaviest military presence I've seen since northern Nigeria. The west has seen some heavy fighting during the recent crisis, and they still haven't got rid of all the various armed groups and Liberia is a short distance away. I can't really figure who's manning those posts, if it's police, army, militia... but in general they seem to do their job and don't give me any trouble. It's a drag to stop, get up to them and show my papers so if they're not right in front of the road and there's no gate, I'd just look the other way and speed past them. Just saving time and trouble - although in hindsight it may not have been very smart with all these weapons still out there.. but I'm getting ahead of myself.
My goal for today is Taï National Park, which should have good hikes. It also host a sizeable group of chimpanzees. At the closest city I ask for the park entry. I get directions but I also understand it's closed.. damn it! I need to go see by myself. With a few more stop for directions I reach the "eco-lodge".
That sounds good, but it's obviously abandoned. There's nobody at what looks like the park's offices. I spot a little trail leading into the forest. It's too narrow so I have to leave the bike there. 5 minutes away I reach the camp proper, a series of bungalows, in various stats of disrepair. Some people are working (hanging out) there and tell me that indeed, the camp is closed as it's being rebuilt, but the manager should be back shortly. Another 1/2 h or so and the manager is back with his crew.
They've been out in the forest preparing the work to repair the hiking trails. While he confirms that the operation is closed to tourists, I express my disappointment in coming here for nothing. This being Africa, theres' always room for discussion. in me as he proposes to house me in the park's main office, back in town. And I could also arrange for a guided visit into the park. Deal!
The room is just that, a bare room. It used to be furnished but during the war some militia settled down here. When they fled they took everything they could with them. Since then, there has been no fund to rebuild the camp. I meet and chat with some of the rangers and a French girl who's volunteering on the chimpanzee program. The electricity doesn't come all the way to here, so at night everything turns pitch black, except for the bar who's showing the football games on TV, the only one who's got money to put fuel in a generator. By deduction, it also means it's got cold beer too..
The next morning I drive with the bike to the "eco-lodge", with my guide riding pillion, from where we will to hike a few hours to a forest camp deep in the rain forest. A gang of rangers camp there in the middle of the rain forest, their mission is to track the chimpanzee families and get as close as possible to them, so that they get used to the human presence.
In all those chimp/gorilla parks (Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, etc..) the animals have gotten used to human presence and they don't see them as a threat anymore, so the rangers can bring tourists pretty close without them caring. It used to be the case in Taï too, until the war broke. The villagers escaped the fightings and settled into the forest. They had to survive away from their fields, of course, so they've started to hunt whatever bush meat that could get, including chimps. After a few years, they've become very afraid of humans, and now if the park wants to organize chimp tracking tours, they need to regain their trust. That's what these guys are doing: they track and follow a group all day long until dusk when they settle for the night and make a nest in the trees (they sleep every night in a different place and have to rebuild a nest). Then they mark their position using a GPS, hike back to the camp and go to sleep. Another shift wakes up before dawn, picks up the GPS coordinates of the nest and rejoin the chimps before they wake up, to follow them all day long, etc.. every single day. Even though they're not officially ready to take tourists, the deal is that I would spend the night in the camp, then join the rangers early in the morning to see the chimps.
Fortunately there is a path from the eco-lodge to the bush camp, although it is being currently worked on: they need to to rebuild some bridges and walkways over small streams to make it easier for people without rubber boots to hike.
The forrest is beautiful and impressive, with massive trees and lots of oversized insects.. I'm glad to be with a guide, if I were to hike alone it would be a little creepy. We reach the camp in 1/2 day and meet the rangers. They're spending 3-weeks shifts here before going back home for a rest. They've cleared a flat space in the thick forest and built a few A-frame log shelters with raised floors where they sleep, a table and a pit toilet. They've also got a solar panel (high upon a tree of course) to power a small radio and charge their GPS unit. That's it.
At night fall, the trackers still haven't made it back to the camp. I'm knackered so I go to bed, while the rangers wait for their colleagues. If they haven't found the group, they'll let me sleep, otherwise they'll wake me up to go see them. Somehow they also get tired of waiting and go to bed before the other group returned. Suddenly in the early morning they take me out of my sleep and rush me out: they have overslept and they risk missing the wake-up and departure of the chimps. The nest is several km away and it's pitch dark. I follow them is a mad dash across the thick rain forest, across streams, tripping over roots and dodging low branches, something they're used to do at an amazing speed but for me hard work. After 1h of this race in the forest, they get confused with the GPS coordinates, and we run in circles. It's now past dawn and the hopes of finding the chimps in the nest have all but vanished. Finally we meet another ranger who tells us the story: the previous night, they followed the chimps until a river and lost them when they crossed it (they have no boat and can't cross the deep river). Because my guide went to sleep before the rangers got back, he missed this crucial piece of information. I'm a bit angry at them for rushing me through the forest during the night for nothing, and make it clear to them that if they want tourists they need to improve their communication (like they cared). Anyway, we come back to the camp to have breakfast and rest a bit. My guide is a bit sick so we decide to immediately walk back to the bike and to the park's office. I'm happy to find his wife at home to take care of him as he's clearly not doing well.
At the end of the day I haven't seen no friggin' monkey, but it's been a memorable experience nonetheless.
It rains a lot during the night, so by the time I leave the roads have changed from solid laterite to slippery mud with some deep pools.
Notice the knobby tires that are strapped to the back? what does it take for me to get rid of those road tires ?
Most parts are quite OK, the forest is still as nice and the mud actually makes it just challenging enough to spice it up.
There's very little traffic. It's easy to see why, only the 4x4 and trucks with high clearance and good traction can make it through, and at snail pace. The bike still seems the better option for traveling. There are a few little villages on the road, and as usual there is some sort of police/military checkpoint at the entrance. They're mostly sleeping or drinking, and often too surprised to stop me before I'm gone. Except this time, when I have to slow in the village because of the traffic, I see two armed guys on a small bike passing me and shoving a rifle under my nose, asking why I didn't stop. They're not amused that some passer-by would ignore them - especially a white guy. So they're angry, they're yelling at me, and I'm a bit shaken because I just realize that these dudes have been routinely shooting each other not long ago and that they just might do the same with tourists.. I take my better "dazed and confused" stupid tourist impression, and apologize profusely. They tell me to follow them to the checkpoint, where the tension eases a bit. They take my papers, everything is in order and after another lesson of who's the boss here, they switch their attention to my bike, and how I made it here. Drama's over and I can keep going, this time a little more careful at the checkpoints.
The road starts to climb in the mountains, the air cools down nicely until I arrive in Man, the main city in the west. It used to be quite touristy, but nowadays the only visitors are the Bangladeshi soldiers from the nearby UN base. I find a hotel near the hotel that used to have several dozens rooms for tourists and businessmen. It had been taken over by the rebels who established there their headquarters, and who left it in shambles. The owner has been able to restore one floor in a somewhat usable state, but even so the city's water distribution is cut off but for one hour during the day, so the shower comes in the form of cold buckets.
Next: juggling and football