Dodging Al Qaeda: The BusRun 2011

Dodging Al Qaeda: The BusRun 2011

It was a little hard to say goodbye to Lagos, Portugal after spending a very lazy and relaxing three weeks there on the beach. The Hostel I stayed in was great along with the owners and all the other guests and Lagos was just a fantastic town, parties all night and day and secluded beaches to escape the subtle madness of the town. It reminded me a lot of Plakias, Crete but without the harder mentality of the Greek Culture.

I had to double think my decision to leave and make my journey through West Africa but weighing up the pros and cons I knew that the busrun was something I had to do. I had found the trip a few months earlier on the Thorn Tree. An English charity operating in Elmina, Ghana had bought an overland tour truck and needed it delivered to Ghana so that they could operate tours around the schools they supported in the country. We were taken on the truck as paying passengers to help cover the cost of getting the truck to Elmina.

The normal tours that run from Gibraltar to Ghana take 10 weeks and cost £2000, we were doing this 6500km trek in just 3 weeks for a cost of £500!  It was an offer to good to refuse and when we all meet up at Gibraltar airport met our trip driver I realised that we were exceptionally lucky in what we were getting. Matt had been leading these trips through Africa for 10 years and had driven 3 Trans Africa expeditions already, he also co-owned The Sleeping Camel Guesthouse in Bamako, Mali which later got us the tour we all wanted to Djenne and the Dogon country.

3 weeks was a short amount of time to reach Ghana and we all had to push ourselves to make the most of the sights we wanted to see along the way and also just to keep ourselves going the distance. Travelling from Marrakesh to Bamako took us a total of 8 days and it was hard going! Mauritania was a fantastic place and the people were amazing but unfortunately there are very severe travel warnings there due to Al Qaeda so we had to get in and basically out of the country as quick as we could. Heading east from Nouakchott we woke at sunrise and started driving, at some point later Matt would throw a big bag of bread into the side of the truck for breakfast on the go and then we would stop 30mins before sunset, cook our dinner and sleep before doing the same routine the next day.

I really liked Mauritania and think it would be a fabulous place to explore someday when the risk of kidnapping and beheading is not so high. Next time however I will plan my times and make sure I do not go there at the hottest time of the year like I did this time. My God, It was hot! Matt had told us since day one that it was going to get hot, real hot, and on the day we headed from Nouakchott to Kifa we felt what he meant. The wind was blowing like a hairdryer, the sun was belting down and we found later that it had been 46 degrees at 3pm with a real feel of 50. It was no wonder we all went through around 6 litres each of (hot) water and still didn’t need the truck to stop for a pee break. The best moment was after a few hours of suffering silence when Christina looked at us and asked if anyone else was wondering what the price of a flight from Bamako back to London might cost J It was that hot that you had to wonder if you could handle it, yet the locals kids would run around kicking their makeshift football made from plastic bags.

After taking the ferry from Spain we spent 3 days in Rabat, Morocco waiting to get our Mauritanian visas and taking day trips to Fez and Casablanca. Fez was a great place, apart from the touts in the Medina, and Casablanca is well worth a look for the huge Mosque. Our nights in Rabat were spent in the nightclub next to the campsite joining in the traditional dinner and dancing that the locals loved so much. It reminded me of the way the Cretans drink and sing and dance but the Moroccans seemed so much more relaxed and friendly than some of the Greeks can be.

One highlight for me was seeing the local village ladies collecting water in big 20ltr drums that they were transporting in wheelbarrows. I felt bad that these old ladies were doing this hard work while we stood watching so I headed over and offered to help. I was greeted by smiles and immense laughter and shown to a wheelbarrow and pointed in the direction I had to go. The lady I was with loved it and kept laughing, holding my arm and telling everyone we passed about what was happening. It was a long push back to her house/Hut but worth it for the look on her daughter in laws face when I barged through the front gate with by two barrels of water for her. The whole family came out to greet me and offered me food and drinks, I felt guilty taking from such poor people and instead went back to get the others to show them the village life of true Moroccans that I am not sure many tourists get to see.


Our visas arrived and we started the trip south with a quick stop in Marrakesh to see the famous main square. It was just like something out of an Indian Jones film and I would have loved it if t wasn’t for all the touts hassling tourists, especially the monkey men throwing their monkeys on you then trying to get you to take a photo and charge for it. I felt bad for the monkeys but you had no choice but to toss them back to the handler when they landed on you. There had been a bombing in the main square 10 days before we arrived and although the Cafe had been sealed off and flowers had been left the rest of the square was business as usual.

We bush camped two nights in the Western Sahara and on the second we stayed with a local nomad and his family who invited us to drink tea with them. It was a great experience although I think we all felt a little out of place there until the young son came along and after a quick chat procured some of our beers from me and then sat up drinking with us until 2am. He wanted me to go for a night drive in his 4wd through the sand dunes but after a few too many I thought that it was not the best idea, he wanted me to drive and it was far too tempting to be a good idea.

Western Sahara is an interesting place. It has nothing really but loads of sand and was its own country until the Spanish took over years ago, they then left abruptly and Morocco went in and took control with force and a long battle with the local tribes who wanted to gain independence started. The hatred for Moroccans was very high and we mostly spoke Spanish with the local Saharawi people as they refused to speak French and none of us spoke Arabic. Technically they are still their own country and still want independence from Morocco but to be honest I am not sure how their quality of life would be if the Moroccans left and took all their money and construction with them.

We arrived sweaty and tired to Bamako and ready to drink, we had smuggled some beer into the Islamic state of Mauritania but keeping it cold was pretty hard in the Sahara desert. The sleeping Camel solved this problem and when Matt decided to extend our trip by one day so that he could ‘get so feckin drunk that I can’t speak’ we all started and were ready for a big party.

Matt was passed out by 9.30pmJ and we all not long after followed and spent the next day rehydrating and sitting under fans ready for the 4 day trip that we had arranged into the supposed Al Qaeda danger towns of Mali. Our tour was so quick that we basically drove, slept and drove so when Matt allowed us the time to head off and explore Mali we really appreciated it.

The main highlight, after the mud mosque and town of Djenne, was the Dogon Country. The Dogon people have been living in little mud hut communities in the desert for thousands of years and seeing their traditions and cultures was a very unique experience. It was 45 degrees during the day so we would get up early and walk for a few hours between villages before sitting in shade and sweating out the heat of the day before walking a few more hours in the evening further down the 30km long cliff face that holds the many Dogon Villages.

Our last night we all bought special Dogon hats and wore them on our way back to meet the truck and head for Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso a city that had just recently lifted a 2 week curfew imposed after the army looted the streets and fired their guns in protest at not being paid on time. There seemed to be no real danger for tourists but we decided to get through the country as fast as we could anyway. In fact about 4 days after we left the army again hit the streets to riot and another curfew was imposed.

We arrived to Ouagadougou at 5pm, got our rooms in the local monastery and headed out for dinner. I was very dehydrated after the Dogon trek and should have been drinking water and not beer, hindsight is a great thing. The beer was giving me a good buzz when we hit the local bar and things went for good to better to bad when we decided that buying a litre of vodka in the bar for $90 would be best. 5 of us polished this off in about 30mins and another one was ordered. I lost all memory halfway into this bottle and am told that I fell asleep on the dance floor, got carried out by the bouncers, carried back in by the tour group and then helped out to a taxi at the end of the night.

My roommate was none too pleased when I came staggering in to our little room and took a pee in the shower as we had no toilet and then he was really mad when I woke in the middle of the night to puke but could not get out of my mosquito net and decided that it had holes so I could just puke through it. Ooops. Great night by all accounts but the next day was a long one across the border into Ghana, I slept for most of it bouncing around in the back of the truck.

Ghana was our last stop after braving the dangers of West Africa and Al Qaeda and we all expected to be greeted by a friendly and safe country on our arrival. Instead we were greeted by police who told us that we were not to bush camp or drive at night as there had been some violent armed hold ups in the last few days on the highways. Matt pushed the issue with them but they were adamant that if we did not do as they said we would get attacked. You don’t hear about this on the travel warnings! The safest country in West Africa is the one that holds the biggest threat to us so far.

I was really unimpressed with Ghana and would even say that it is the only country I have come across that I have hated. The people were a disgrace! All through Africa people ask for money or presents from white people, it is just the way it is and although annoying you get used to it but in Ghana they were really rude and aggressive about it. Everywhere you went people would call out ‘Abruni’, which meant white person, and the ones that then wanted something from you would not ask for it, they would demand it.

I spent a week in Elmina planning my next few weeks of travel, and seeing the great work of the which was the charity we travelled down with, and then I got the hell outta Ghana. I cannot say that everybody in Ghana was rude but it seemed to be a higher percentage. I gave the benefit of the doubt to the rude embassy staff in London and figured that maybe London had rubbed off on them, I now reconsider that and think that any rude experience I have in London is possibly Ghana rubbing off on them.

It is absolutely true that West Africa is about the people and East Africa is about the animals. From Morocco to Mali we were met everywhere with friendly locals and great encounters. I am not sure if it is a place I would want to live or even travel to again but for the 3 weeks of the trip it was an amazing time and something that we will all remember and I was glad that I had remained free from Malaria, well I thought I had anyway.

See photos for Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana