Published: June 3rd 2010May 9th 2010
Just finished a three-week overland trip through West Africa with my travel buddies, Accra to Abidjan overland via Timbuktu. We'd been planning this trip now for several years before finally getting our schedules synced. We would start out in Accra, head east via Lome to Cotonou, then up north through Benin to Pendjari Park before transiting Burkina Faso to Mali. After visiting Mopti, the Dogon Country and Timbuktu, we would head back south through Burkina Faso to Ghana again, down to the coast and head west, ending our trip in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire.
Travel in West Africa can be challenging; just getting there can be difficult due to limited flight schedules and routings, then there are other issues such as costly visas and immunizations to worry about. Two of us were able to use our Delta miles for an open-jaw award on KLM and Air France from Houston into Accra (Ghana) and out of Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire). We would have preferred the nonstop Delta flight to Accra, but after trying for nearly a whole year there were never Skysaver seats available on the days we needed.
The visas were a bit trickier; there (used to) exists a common visa for certain countries in West Africa, the Visa Touristique Entente (VTE); many travelers had been able until recently to obtain this in the Togo embassy in Accra. However there is supposedly a new Schengen-like common visa going into effect throughout West Africa in 2011 (UEMOA or CDEAO visa); as of last October officially getting a visa for one country would allow entry into any of the others. This being Africa though, it only exists on paper.. none of the border guards have been trained on this and hadn't heard any success reports on travel forums. Meanwhile, the embassies have apparently stopped issuing the VTE. This meant we would have to get visas for every country we planned to visit. Luckily it seemed that some visas were available at borders, meaning we would only need to acquire the Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Mali visas ahead of time. Until last year US citizens didn't even need a visa for Cote d'Ivoire, however they are now $150 so a big kick in the wallet. The Mali visas were $131 and the Ghana multiple-entry visa was $80. It took about a month to get all the visas; with FedEx back and forth directly to the embassies/consulates in Washington, NYC and San Francisco.
Immunizations were easier; some countries in West Africa do require a yellow fever immunization but mine was up to date. I also got pills for malaria; I had used Larium before without any side effects and decided to use the same again.. they're only taken once a week instead of daily like other antimalarials.
May 8-9, 2010
Flight: Houston (IAH) to Amsterdam, KLM economy, 747 combi
Flight: Amsterdam (AMS) to Accra (ACC), KLM economy, 777
Hotel: New Haven Hotel, Accra, Ghana, 20 GHS
I'd driven to Houston the previous day with my friend S., his parents lived near the airport and we spent the night there before our flight to Accra. My other friend D. was flying in from Dallas and would meet us in Amsterdam. Lots of last minute packing and shopping that morning for mosquito spray, energy bars, etc. We arrived at the IAH international terminal about 3 hours early, luckily the line was still very short for checkin at KLM. Usually I try to checkin online, but had no success with KLM's site.. the tickets were award tickets booked via Delta. KLM website referred me to Delta site for checkin, but the Delta site said it couldn't since KLM was the operating carrier. So much for alliances. At least we had been able to select decent seats online ahead of time.
I'd wanted to carryon my backpack, but the checkin counter nazi made me weigh it and it was over by just enough to make me check it through to Accra. I was so flustered I forgot to get out a change of clothes, toiletries etc. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt (it was quite warm in Texas already). I had my daypack at least with my camera and other electronics. The line through security was fairly busy, it seemed half the people all had babies and kept jumping line. I only have lowly Silver status on Delta so that meant no lounge access (sob) once in the terminal.
Our flight to Amsterdam was on a KLM combi-747.. I'd never flown one of those before so it was interesting to see them loading cargo onto the main passenger deck through the cargo door on the back half of the plane. S. and I boarded with the Elite passengers; we had good window seats just a couple rows back from the boarding door. KLM now has their Economy plus seating on some flights, I'd debated a paid upgrade it but turned out the standard econ seat had sufficient legroom.
Our flight left about an hour late; the volcano in Iceland had been acting up again and was affecting flights. Our flight path actually took us over the northern part of Iceland before looping down to AMS. Otherwise the flight was uneventful. We had a 6-hour layover in Amsterdam and had planned on going to either Haarlem or Leiden for a few hrs. We pulled into the gate next to an Iran Air plane, where our friend D. was already waiting for us. We noticed that our flight to Accra was showing a 2+ hr delay. It took awhile to drop his bag at a locker then caught the train to Leiden. It was a cold, dreary, cloudy Sunday morning and I'm in shorts and short-sleeves.. Brr! Being a Sunday morning, nothing was open either. We spent an hour or so wandering around before catching the train back to the airport. Apparently we hit a rush period, it took nearly a half hour to get back through passport control into the terminal; lines were snaking back quite a distance. We still had quite a wait before the flight to Accra.
Finally it gets to be boarding time, the gate agents here were also being very strict on size/weight for carryon.. there was a huge pile of carryon luggage here that people were forced to gate check. The flight left almost 2.5 hrs late; almost due south over the Sahara. When we landed, the windows steamed up immediately.. the humidity here was a force that hits you as you exit the plane. There was a short bus to the terminal, but then were met with a huge line for immigration. Took almost 50 minutes to get our passport stamped, meanwhile our bags are sitting like easy prey on the belt in the next room. When we finally get through, my friend S. discovers that his bag had been cut open and his binoculars missing from the side pocket! Not a good first introduction to West Africa. We used the ATM/changed money and caught a cab to our hotel. Ghana uses its own currency, the cedi, pretty stable at about 1.42 to $1. The taxi cab ranks were easy to negotiate, asking 15 Cedis to our hotel, the New Haven.
I'd been to Accra airport before, but just in transit to this was my first real trip to Ghana. It looked very modern and clean for the short ride to our hotel just off the main ring road. The hotel was fairly basic, only $29 a night for a double but with aircon, hot water and breakfast included!