Nov 2016. Nouakchott, Mauritania. We made it at last!
There's only one safe (well, relatively) and viable route now across the Sahara and we've just made it.
After crossing the Atlas Mountains of Morocco into the desert, we endured several bus, minibus and shared-Mercedes journeys across Western Sahara and Mauritania, eventually reaching the hot, dusty and dry (NO BEER!) capital city, Nouakchott.
Our longest, toughest ride was 21.5 hours overnight from Agadir, Morocco to Dakhla, which is claimed by Morocco but lies officially in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
The marché capitale in Nouakchott was a chaotic jumble of perpetual commerce, with everything from shoes to sheep guts available. Eventually we found what we were searching for - the distinctive tie-dyed cotton malafa cloth worn as a wrapper by Mauritanian women.
Magie had a lesson from one lady who showed her how to wear it and we did manage a few treasured photos of some of the ladies at work - but only after asking very politely and buying, of course.
Nov 2016. Saint Louis, Senegal. In our 30+ years of bashing around Africa, we've never experienced anything like the hassle, chaos and borderline terror of the Rosso border crossing from Mauritania into Senegal.
After an hour delay en route at Tiguent - a dozen unexplained blazing barricades blocked the road at intervals through the town - we finally made the frontier. The lurkers, hasslers, hustlers and criminals were waiting for us, fresh fish to fry in the fire of fraudulent undertakings.
First, it was impossible to tell the crooks from the plainclothes officials. Second, the crooks were very clever. Third, the officials didn't give a toss and were probably in on the scams anyhow.
After about 90 minutes of negotiating and argueing, we were finally stamped out of Mauritania. It took all our wits to not get completely robbed and only loose about £20 in bogus currency transactions, which we put down to 'unofficial visa fees'.
A really nice Mauritanian Islamic scholar on the way to the religious festival at Touba took us under his wing and got us onto a pirogue across the river and safely into Sengal. 'Merci, Mohammed. We won't forget you!'
After a couple of days relaxing and exploring here in Saint Louis - a UNESCO world heritage site and the old capital of French West Africa - we'll be back on the road to Dakar.
Dec 2016, Guinea. Finding reliable info about traveling in Guinea is almost impossible. Wikipedia and the FCO are both too scary to talk about. Lonely Planet, Bradt and Tripadvisor all tell the same story: 'nobody goes there, so we know nothing.'
What else could we do but go and see for ourselves. What we found was an amazing and varied country of wooded highlands, waterfalls, huge forests, diabolical roads, virtually nil infrastructure, grinding poverty and the most amazingly friendly and hospitable people we have met anywhere in Africa. We felt like we were back in the Congo in the 1980s. Here are a few highlights.
Labe: indigo heaven in the Fouta Djallon Highlands. Getting there from Basse in The Gambia was a 12 hour bash over smashed and potholed tarmac, barely passable dirt roads in the forest and two tense border crossings. Thankfully, Abdul's battered Peugot was up to the job and we arrived at the delightful Hotel Tata just in time for pizza and beer! Merci, Madame Raby!
The villages around Labe are known for indigo dyeing. We hired taxi motos and a local guide and headed into the hills, photographing, videoing and buying wonderful tied and stitch resist indigo cloths. It'll all be on the website when we got home in February!
It was wonderful to have Trish and especially Musa with us as well. Musa's father is from Guinea, but Musa had only been there once as a youth. Picture this... We're weaving and bobbing over a dirt road in the forest when Musa points to the start of a footpath leading into the trees. 'That is to my father's village,' he says. 'I went there when I was 18.' Astounding.
After Labe, Trish and Musa returned to The Gambia for Trish's flight home. That meant the same horrible road back again. Even worse, the border was closed so they had to sleep there. Trish got the only cot, Musa got a mattress and the rest of the stranded passengers slept on the cement.
To N'zerekore for sacred forest cloth. We were glad to get away into the Guinean countryside again, braving more horrible roads to friendly little towns with not much going on except survival: Mamou, Kissidougou and finally N'Zerekore. Madame Beatrice at the Auberge Golo was fantastic. 'Just take my car and driver,' she said, so we did in search of the traditional 'sacred forest' cloth of the region - dyed with kola nut and painted with mud. Again, see the website in February!
Dec 2016. Korhogo, Côte d'Ivoire. Handpainted Korhogo cloth is truly magical and we got right to the source yesterday after an hour-long moto ride through cashew and cotton plantations to the village of Fakaha, near Korhogo.
Here, skilled artisans use crude metal tools to apply natural paint compounds to woven cotton cloths to create fantastic designs incorporating birds, animals and ritualistic human mask figures.