Saturday, April 7, 2007

++Dangerous Road, the Rainforest is unforgivable++

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Daloa, Man to Gbakpleu, Border Cote d'Ivoire - Guinea

Setting off after  breakfast early morning, the road still stretches a few hundred miles westward to the border with Guinea. To travel early has many advantages : For one the dreadful Gendarmerie and Douane checkpoints and barriers are mostly unmanned, and secondly the temperature is still bearable.

The land is lush with green, a fruit basket - the entire country. On the way we pick  up a ton of pink grapefruits, whatever we could take, a real 15 cents a kg. I found  grapefruits to assist in many ways, it has many nutritional values, and is a natural antibiotic (flavenoids).

We reach the town of Man at 14.00 PM and ask directions to the border which according to my map should be about 30 - 35 miles. from here. It is mandatory in the region to call on the local police station to report your itinerary. The Police in Man is just wasting our time. Nobody cares and we move towards direction of Guinea.

A nasty feeling overcomes me when I notice the changing of the road surface, till now we had tarred roads, here it turns into a rusty red, unpaved and full of potholes. Used to bad road conditions I try to brush my ill feeling aside only to be overwhelmed by it again later.

The Policeman standing on the road asking us for a lift looks decent and I invite him in the car with his AK 47 . A welcome guide,  protector in case of a problem. Not long after,  we experience the first heavy downpour on our trip.

 With near zero visibility we move through the tropical storm, I am now fully alert, envisaging the things to come. In no time the road has turned into a network of lakes and  waterholes, making it difficult for the vehicle to pass. At speeds of 20 we inch along through the rain, avoiding the massive pools along the road. We pass villages which lie paralyzed, everyone seeking shelter from the storm. Coffee plantations along the way, with the deep red coffee beans being visible  within the foliage, a beautiful sight I recall.

When we encounter our first hundred feet of rainwater  we cannot bypass, our guide the policeman wades in front of me, the rain drenching him,  to show us a shallow place to pass. We manage the first one, but I have a notion that things will get worse, and they do.

A village is being cut off by a torrent stream the road washed away. The makeshift road which serves as a diversion is not much better, we find ourselves in the middle of the village with everyone staring at us with curiosity. It is not everyday white people find their way in these remote parts,

Through the center we drive and find back to our road on a cattle trail, which is hard to maneuver on. And always striking me is the immense beauty of this country, even under such a stressful situation, Africa has its charm, no doubt.

The dream is short lived,  we find more trouble ahead, a truck has  blocked the road, sunk his axle deep in the mud. Loaded to the brink, if anyone can understand the term, unknown in western parts those trucks are being overloaded to their allowed max. payload. And amidst all this, the driver and his mate attempt to lift the truck by means of a hydraulic jack. By now the downpour had stopped, we get down form the car to watch the spectacle. People shoving and pushing the 20 tons plus without results, the jack lifting up the back axle, wheels grinding the vehicle miraculously finds its way out of this morast, the driver knew where to jack up. I still cant believe it, the truck actually moves ! Wonders happen. With the bypassing truck and people shouting in excitement we continue our journey. As our wheelbase is shorter we pass unhindered by the sump that has developed where the truck had dug his wheels into.

It is 5 PM when we reach a stretch of road that makes my heart come to standstill. The deep tracks left by the first truck, I cannot imagine how I can possibly pass this, more than 300 feet long. We get out from the car and reckon how to get through this, everyone has a good advice, at the end it is me who has to drive us through.

After 10 minutes I draw up courage and plan to move ahead, right into the huge pool of water. And I must admit at the time I was still a novice. The inevitable happened the vehicle gets stuck 20 yards later. Everyone is on his feet, giving me a push forward, only to see the wheels digging in deeper, smelling  burnt rubber from the increase of friction. I begin to panic, I know  the forest dusk sets in at 6 PM, and here in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by tropical virgin rainforest, not an ideal place to spend a night.

Something, some miracle must come our way if we should make it out before dark. Personal safety is a concern, the location near the Liberian border, a triangle of three countries, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Guinea. The route is being used by smugglers, Armed Robbers, Bandits and other Anti Social Elements, and life does not mean a lot here.

Kneeling under the vehicle I notice the chassis stuck on the ground. The carjack is of no avail, we dig with our hands, cutting our skin with the tiny, sharp stones. All attempts to free the car are fruitless.

A family of Natives appear, 10 heads with the Patriarch in the lead, all push the vehicle, it does not move one inch forward. Noticing the nervousness of the Natives I can not explain. The only way is to get a tractor from the Agric station 10 miles ahead to pull us out.

The family members leave, the Patriarch staying behind, a nice gesture. As predicted, dusk sets in at 6 PM, the forest is shrouded in darkness, An awesome feeling, sounds of the jungle awakening around us.

All sorts of thoughts come to your mind, what will happen, how do we get out of here ? Normally what would be a scenery for a documentary, but we are captives of a mighty forest of unknown dimensions. The gigantic trees around now look ghostly in the night sky, only the fireflies glooming in the dark. Mosquitoes buzz around me in thousands, but here I find the difference in being a Vegan. I am not suffering a single bite, the Mosquitoes not being drawn to my un tasty hemoglobin. To breed their eggs they look for carnivores, and those next to me keep on slapping their ankles and exposed limbs continuously. Having waded in the water, I roll up my trouser sleeves above the knees. In midst the lukewarm, red muddy water, my Timberlands get caught in the sticky mud and in the dark never to be found  again. I am now bare feet except the plastic slippers I have in my car, a somewhat cheaper version of footwear.

It is 7 PM when I see a hush of a beam pointing towards the sky, behind the hill in the forest ahead of us, roughly 400 meters away. And rightly we hear a car engine revving its way up towards our position. Whoever has come here must be able to help us to get out I figure.

The car stops on the other side of the puddle upon noticing that we block his way, I was wondering how a Peugeot 504 Caravan, full with 12 passengers and Cargo could make it through this and I couldn't. The driver coming over and inquiring about the problem, laughs and calls his 12 passengers to help. With combined efforts, 14 grown adults pushing, the engine reversing, we pull back to where I started from. The driver will cruise his 504 through the mud and will show me how to move my car through the morals..

In excellent fashion he steers his rust bin through all the puddles, sinking so deep that I can't believe he will make it, yet he passes, his engine roaring high. I wonder what is worse, the Paris - Dakar Rally or this here, settling for the latter.

He chuckles, then comes to me to give me the secret. Coming from a mountainous region, I have driven on slippery, icy roads before, turning half way down a dangerous mountain in Winter. But this is new to me, I submit to my African teacher.

He explains when entering the mud,  press down the accelerator, turn the steer hard towards the embankment, thus keeping the vehicle in a semi-upper position, and  the car won't get stuck. It made sense to me, and  the experience showed he was right. With him on my right side I take the stretch in a few minutes, the car jerking and pushing through all the way. Our savior is obviously happy that he had shown me some bush sense. Amidst thanks and a small token in form of money the driver continues his journey, it is 8 PM when we continue our trip.

Next I notice the ignition light turning red,  indicating a problem with the alternator. Now being pitch dark, I decide to continue towards the border. Not far from where we are I also notice the steering going harder and harder. Upon all this we find a puncture in my rear right tire and we have to change the wheel, like it or not. Again, on a slope, I attempt to change the wheel when I notice the sound of another car coming from affront. This one is sent by the our Companions to help us, nearly 3 hours after they set of on foot.

They help me to get the spare tire and we continue, and I am informed that the border post is only 3 miles away now. Just then it begins to drizzle again. when we reach the Soldier post, the rain is  again pouring. We took 8 hours to travel 25 Miles but the sight of the Army post lifts up my spirits high again this evening.

The Ivorian Army maintains a border post here, the Capitaine a gentleman. Upon introducing ourselves, he invites me to stay for the night, his post lit by Kerosene lights.

He has also instructed his lower charges to prepare hot water for us and I have my forest shower under the nightly sky with the rain drizzling on me in the process. I can't express the relaxing emotion overcoming me this moment, after all the digging and profound physical efforts. This shower, in midst the jungle, under open sky and in the rain is what I recall today.

After we are invited to join the commander for dinner. I am hungry and I must say that Ivorians do have a cusine, even here. Beef simmered in pea nut butter sauce, with capsicums spicing the dish, steamed rice. The dish tastes wonderful. On this occasion I bring out 10 pink grapefruits and distribute them amongst the soldiers.

They have built new barracks here and I am given a new barrack with a bed. I am grateful for their hospitality.

The steam of the jungle, its ever present sounds around everywhere, the rain hitting the Metal roofing sheets , it is hard to find sleep. Tossing and rolling in my bunk, my thoughts go back and forth, what will tomorrow bring, on this journey to the unknown....

Next Episode : The long Road to Nzerekore

excerpts from : A journey to the unknown, by HR.

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