From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Shortly before boarding my plane at Sydney Airport this morning, I posted this update on my Facebook page: “I'm at Sydney Airport, departing for a 5 week reconnaissance trip to West Africa to prepare for my January 2015 Study Tour that I will lead for the Geographical Society of New South Wales. I'll be visiting Liberia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Gambia. Preparation for the trip has been eventful to say the least; I'm hoping the travels will be smoother ("seriously, in West Africa?", you ask incredulously). I'll be posting daily updates on my website whenever I can get internet access ("seriously, in West Africa?", again you ask incredulously).”

Travelling to Africa is always an adventure.  West Africa is perhaps a more adventurous destination than most parts of Africa.  And aiming to cover eight countries in five weeks is a particularly adventurous form of adventure.

The purpose of this trip is to conduct on-the-ground research to prepare for a Study Tour I hope to conduct for the Geographical Society twelve months from now.  I have been to some of the countries on this itinerary before, but not all of them, and I have visited none of them for about a decade.

In my Facebook posting, I mentioned my pre-trip adventures.  I hope the worst is now behind me.  At the risk of re-living my horrors, let me share just a few of the challenges I have addressed.

In order to visit these eight countries, I needed to obtain seven visas.  Four of the visas can be obtained while travelling (or so I have been told), either upon arrival or in embassies within West Africa.  Of the three visas I needed to obtain beforehand, two were from countries that did not have embassies in Australia – Liberia and Niger – the other visa being for Ghana.

The first visa I obtained was for Liberia, which required sending my passport by courier to the Embassy in London.  When I received my visa, I checked the dates and discovered that they had issued a visa that would expire before I arrived in the country (which begs the question – why did they ask me to state my arrival date on the application form?).  Rather than endure the hassle of obtaining a replacement visa (which included me having to phone FedEx in London to arrange the pickup of my passport), I changed the dates of my travel and moved Liberia from the end of my itinerary to the beginning.

When I did so, I tried to change the date of my British Airways flight out of Monrovia (Liberia), only to be told that the airline had cancelled that flight seven weeks earlier without telling me.  In hindsight, I am glad I didn’t have to wait until I arrived at Monrovia Airport at the scheduled time of 3:45 am to discover that the flight no longer existed – British Airways really need to improve their communication!

I then obtained my second visa from the Nigerien Embassy in Ottawa (Canada), once again using FedEx courier, and this went without a problem.  With only one visa to go, I sent my passport by Australia Post Express Platinum (their overnight tracked service) to the Ghanaian Embassy in Canberra.

You can probably imagine my disappointment when they lost the envelope containing my passport.  Australia Post still don’t know where the envelope is, but it did turn up in a bag at the bottom of another bag of mail five weeks later in a pharmaceutical equipment office in North Ryde, about a kilometre from North Ryde Post Office where I posted it.

By this time, I had cancelled my passport, applied for and obtained a new one, sent my passport back to London and Ottawa, and had obtained a visa for Ghana from anew consulate that had opened up in Sydney in the meantime.

After all that, I was confident my problems were behind me – but then I received an e-mail from Expedia asking me to phone them (in the US) because a schedule change to one of my flights might affect my travel plans.

The so-called ‘schedule change’ was that my return flights between Accra (Ghana) and Banjul (Gambia) in late January were now going to be between Accra (Ghana) and Freetown (Sierra Leone).  I saw this change as being more like a cancellation of my flight than a schedule change, and eventually, after being cut off three times and phoning back, and being placed on hold for over an hour, Expedia agreed – but only after they had made direct (and apparently very slow) contact with the airline (ASKY Airlines in Togo).

So that is why I made the comment on Facebook about the pre-trip adventures.  Moreover, I have almost decided to restrict my Geographical Society trip in 2015 to my six core “core countries” that can be covered easily by overland transport (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, Togo and Ghana).  This should avoid the problems inherent in arranging flights within West Africa which, I have found, are irregular, expensive and unreliable.

After all the pre-trip hassles, today’s long flights have been stress-free.  The first leg of my flight was on an old and tired looking Qantas Boeing 747-400 from Sydney to Johannesburg.  This flight of 13 hours and 6 minutes flew south-west from Sydney along the NSW coastline before crossing Bass Strait, flying over Tasmania, and then making a large great-circle loop down to a latitude of about 60 degrees South and looping up to South Africa.  (The map shows the true great circle route, but our actual flight line made a wider arc and flew further to the south).  I would have loved to seen some of the Antarctic sea ice that I was told was below us, but unfortunately a thick cloud cover obscured the view below.

After a fairly short transit of an hour and a half at Johannesburg Airport, I boarded my second leg of the day for a six hour flight to Accra on an immaculate South African Airways Airbus A330-200.  The skies over Africa were frustratingly cloudy during the flight, so the views were anything but clear.  Nonetheless, the flight was very comfortable and the cabin crew were wonderful.  I arrived in Accra about 15 minutes early at 9:00 pm, with a time change from my departure point in Sydney of 11 hours.  It was a long day’s travelling, especially the final hour standing in the line to clear Immigration!

I am staying at the Holiday Inn at Accra Airport tonight and tomorrow night.  My original plan was to stay only one night, but when the Liberian visa issue caused rescheduling, I had to wait until December 30th to get the flight I needed.  The hotel is very comfortable, and even provides a free airport pickup service (and wi-fi, as you can see because this page has been uploaded!).  It is, however, strangely expensive for a Holiday Inn, but fortunately I have points I can use for the stay, thus saving me almost $400 per night.

The photo to the right shows the airport from the hotel - sadly looking in the opposite direction to the view from the window of my room.  If you look carefully, you can even see the tail of my South African Airways aircraft.


Day 1 - Sydney to Accra, Ghana


28 December 2013