A dugout canoe transported me from Liberia to the Ivory Coast. After agreeing on a price with the teenage oarsman the journey took little more than 10-minutes in a vessel that was reassuringly large and under-loaded. This lack of passengers was a good reflection of how many people crossed the border here.

Crossing the Cavally River

The river was swollen and fast moving. After two months of almost daily rainfall in the region it was probably about as high as it gets. Had the dugout rolled it would have been the end of the Big Africa Cycle; my bicycle and gear would have quickly disappeared into the murky depths of the Cavally river and I might have been swept down to the Atlantic before being washed up. Fortunately this never happened, but the thought crossed my mind as the wind whipped-up white water somewhere mid-channel and the dugout began to wobble.

Approaching the far bank the crackle of French being spoken on a local radio station reminded me I was back in Francophone Africa. I found the immigration officer asleep on a bench. When I called to wake him he performed the formalities without engaging in conversation, other than confirming where he was going to place an entry stamp in my passport. African border staff have been surprisingly attentive and considerate in keeping the pages of my passport orderly. By this I mean placing an entry/exit stamp next to the visa of that country rather than at some random point many pages away. I might well make it through the continent without having to replace my passport, assuming it stays in my possession.

Shortly afterwards a young Mauritanian appeared from the darkness of a nearby shack when I announced to several women frying plantain beside a market stall that I wanted to change money. He was a long way from home and I thought to ask if he missed the desert. Instead we argued over the poor exchange rate he offered against the dollar. There wasn’t much competition so I changed $20 – enough to last until I reached a town with a functioning ATM.

Heading away from the river I followed a red laterite track into the greenery. The scenery didn’t look all that different from Liberia. Palm and rubber-tree plantations sporadically flanked the road, interspersed by a whole lot of dead wood. Since gaining independence from France 50 years ago Cote d’ Ivoire has lost almost half of its rainforest. Bare-bark trunks and branches now rise above cassava and rice plantations –nothing more than firewood waiting to be slashed. I anticipated something like this having seen it in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but the scale of deforestation still came as a shock.

Deadwood

Palm plantation sea

I spent my first night in the country eating western-priced pizza and camping on the manicured garden of a French-owned restaurant. It felt a long way from Africa and dugout river crossings. San Pedro, Cote d’ Ivoire’s second port city, appeared like a bustling metropolis as I approached it in the dark. After Liberia and Sierra Leone street-lights were something of a novelty.

Luxury camp

Other than being able to name the country’s most famous footballer and one of its reggae musicians, I can’t confess to knowing a great deal about Cote d’ Ivoire. I’d read that the north of the country is mostly rebel-held territory and has been off-limits for much of the past decade. A good job that I was sticking to the south.

Some other interesting observations about the country are that the food is a whole lot better than the slop offered in Sierra Leone and Liberia. No surprise there with the French influence. On my second night I stayed in a small town and found the centre dominated by street-side eateries grilling large fresh fish; a welcome change from cassava-leave sauce and bony bush meat. The next morning I pedalled out after stopping for a hot crusty baguette.

Indeed Cote d’ Ivoire feels a whole lot more Francophone than both Guinea and Senegal, where despite the French history the language is spoken less amongst people in the countryside. Here Pula and Wolof are two of the dominant languages heard in conversation. Cote d’Ivoire seems however to be so linguistically diverse (around 65 different language groups) that French is spoken much more as a means of communication between people. Great news of course for anyone travelling to the country who speaks French fluently. Frustrating for those like me who don’t.

Bissap is also available again. This ranks alongside coconut milk for being Africa’s most refreshing non-alcoholic beverage. The red juice is made from the hibiscus flower and can be purchased in small bags from teenage boys who pedal between villages selling it out of blue cool-boxes.

Bisap boy

Abidjan looked daunting in scale on my map. It didn’t disappoint. Cote d’ Ivoire’s commercial capital is the biggest city I’ve pedalled into on this trip, and about as unfriendly for cycling as they come. It’s not so much the vehicle fumes and density of traffic that make cities like this unpleasant to cycle in, as the fact that the highways leading into them are clogged with sand and debris at the roadside.  If you don’t cycle over this you’re forced to join the main lanes, where the suicidal gauntlet is inevitably in a hurry to get somewhere. It makes Monrovia and Freetown seem like villages in comparison. Preparation for Nigeria methinks. The difference in comparing somewhere like Abidjan to cities I’ve cycled into in Asia, which are often much larger and more crowded, is that the African countryside is comparatively so much quieter that when one enters a large urban centre the effect of traffic on the senses is far greater. That or the fact that I’m becoming wimpy as the years go by. There is no joy or satisfaction whatsoever in cycling into big cities in undeveloped countries, other than being able to claim that you did it, which no-one really cares about anyhow.

Abidjan

Needless to say I made it, and the cold Flag beer tasted sweeter than if I’d just arrived by plane in the city (another reason for the punishment?) Fortunately the bike and that worn sprocket held out too. The next challenge would be in removing it. Not an easy task either it turned out.