November 2019: With only 5 days in Cote d’ivoire I wanted to visit the wildest part of the country and the most ecological significant…Taï National Park, the largest unbroken tract of old growth rainforest left in West Africa. It is located in the upper Guinea basin along the wild border of Liberia where the rainforest extends into another series of national parks. Taï is home to endangered animals like chimpanzees, pigmy hippo, elephants and leopards. The indigenous people of the area have lived in harmony with animals and have revered the chimpanzees leaving them in peace. Only in the past 50 or so years has the area been under attack by the invasion of cocoa plantations-chocolate and the masses of foreign indentured servant laborers from Burkina Faso-many of which have become victims of what is modern day slavery. This invasion has resulted in severe deforestation and the hunting of animals such as chimpanzees that have no sacred relationship with the immigrants.

My goal was to reach Taï National Park, which is incredibly remote, camp in the jungle and hopefully see some wild animals most importantly the chimpanzees that the park is famous for. The chimpanzees have been studies by scientists and were one of the first populations of primates that were observed to use tools in this case rocks to open nuts, which they use as food. The chimpanzees have become habituated to humans, and it is possible to get somewhat close to them and observe them in the wild.

Getting to Taï National Park

Location of Taï National Park

Rainy Season Problems

Unfortunately for us, our trip to Tai National Park coincided with the end of the rainy season and this year’s rainy season was one of the worst on record. Before the trip I reached out the national park by email to make arrangements with them and I made a booking with them to camp in the forest for the night. Since the rainy season was technically over, the visit should have been possible. That is until a freak late season storm completely ravaged the country dumping torrential rains, flooding towns and the forest. With only weeks before our departure, I received an email from the national park headquarters alerting me that the park was closed for a few months due to flooding and that we would not be able to visit. I didn’t want to give up however, and I decided we would still go to a nearby village, hire local villagers and with our own camping equipment head into Tai national park and try and find the chimpanzees. I knew this would be a logistical nightmare, but I was prepared for the challenge but luckily for us a few days before heading to Abidjan the National Park HQ emailed us again with an update that the rains had stopped, and the forest had drained enough for us to be able to camp in the forest. In other words, the park knowing how determined we were to visit, decided to open prematurely just for us. We lucked out but we still had to content with the notoriously bad roads from San Pedro to Tai.

Day 1: My friend and I had a total of 5 days in Cote d Ivoire and in order to visit Tai with the short amount of time we had in country, we had to fly from the capitol, Abidjan to the coastal town of San Pedro. We flew to Abidjan from Accra, Ghana and transited the airport on a domestic twin turbo prop plane to San Pedro. In San Pedro, the manager of our hotel-Enotel Beach Hotel, who I had been messaging before the trip for help with our transport to Tai, met us at the hotel and took me to the cheapest location in town to convert money to local currency. While talking with the manager, I found out she had just given birth the day before and had decided only to come into work to help us because she wanted to make sure we would be ok. I was completely shocked; her appearance gave no indication of having a baby just yesterday and I expressed how grateful I was to her for her kindness. I made sure to let her know that her baby was number one priority and to not worry about us.

View from Our Beach Hotel

Fishing Boat

The Long and Awful Road to Tai

Day 2: With the help of the manager from Enotel, we arranged a 4wd vehicle and driver to take us to Djirotou on the edge of Tai. The drive was expected to be 7-8 hours long and we because of this we left at sunrise. The road was mostly paved until we reached the last town before the Liberia border and turned inland from the coast. The pavement gave way to muddy deep rutted dirt roads. The roads crisscrossed through cocoa plantations and there didn’t seem to be one main road. We shared the road with huge cocoa transporting trucks, and we would often be stuck behind one of them choking on the dust it was kicking up on us. Luckily the A/C worked in our vehicle, and we could roll up the windows to avoid breathing in the dust. There were few towns and just as I had read, most of the rainforest had been cut down for cocoa plantations. Being that we were on the border of Liberia, there were active United States State Department warnings about banditry in the border region.

Where we had to leave our car behind 

The road became impassable when we were only an hour away from the Tai Park HQ. We reached an impasse of trucks. A giant cocoa truck was stuck in a mud pit in the center of the road and now all traffic was blocked and there was no place to pass them. The shoulder was pure mud and jungle. We were able to call ahead to HQ and we found out that we would need to leave our vehicle and walk 30 minutes passed the bottleneck to meet another vehicle waiting for us on the other side. We trekked through the mud with our backpacks in the soaring tropical heat and walked past the truckers standing in front of their hopelessly stuck trucks as they stared at us in complete surprise. As planned, we met the driver waiting for us on the other side and we headed off to Tai HQ. Maybe we would be sleeping in the forest tonight after all. 

Sleeping in the Forest

The park HQ and bungalows was located back along the edge of the Tai Forest. An incredible lunch and cold beers were waiting for us at the HQ. We met with the manager, and he briefed us with the rangers that would accompany us into the forest.

We started the trip into the forest by traveling upriver via a boat. The river was more of a small creek with fallen logs that we had to push passed on occasion. The biting insects were horrendous and huge biting horse flies would cut right through our clothes with their stingers whenever the boat slowed down. On the river we were hoping to see pigmy crocodiles and pigmy hippos on the boat trip upriver. We did see one small crocodile that may have been a pigmy, but it disappeared into the water before we could get a good look at it. We also passed a few troops of monkeys that cackled at us. It was pretty haunting to be in the flimsy little boat traveling upriver into the forest and the sunset and the forest grew dark. A few times we hit a root or a rock and would almost capsize under the weight of the encroaching water. Finally, under total darkness and after approx. 2 hours on the boat we stopped the boat and set off on foot. The rangers didn’t have flashlights, so I gave them some of my extra lights. The trail was muddy and overgrown. On the lookout for snakes and elephants, we walked for a few miles to our camp. My friend fell in the mud a few times and the long day was starting to get to him. We walked past huge trees, and the forest was alive was strange noises of insects and nocturnal animals that were erupting all around us.

Boat Trip Upriver

Monitor Lizard We saw on the River

The long jungle hike in the dark

Our camp was a base that scientists were currently using to study the wild chimp populations. The tents were raised on wooden platforms for protection from flooding. It was amazing to finally reach our destination and we had a huge meal under the forest canopy, and we uncorked a bottle of red wine. As we celebrated our arrival, the lead ranger informed us that he had bad news. The chimps evidently decided to leave the nearby forest in the morning and had reportedly left to the river, where we just came from. One of the scientists theorized that they were traveling to the other side of the river into another group of chimp’s territory to feed on their fruits and to wage war. he said that when they do this they usually do not come back for days, and they are in danger not only from being killed by fighting with other chimps but also from being hunted by workers in cocoa plantations that are nearby. So, in summary we wouldn’t be seeing any chimps. I decided to wake up early anyways and hike the nearby forest to try. 

Where we ate our meals

Tent platform

Day 3: In the morning I woke up early to the signature sounds of chimpanzee hooting. it turns out we were in luck. Although most of the chimps left on a war party to fight a neighboring band, a mother and her infants and a few other chimps stayed behind and were up in the trees above our camp. We donned masks to keep from spreading any human diseases to the chimps, since we share 98.8 percent of our DNA with them and can transmit our viruses to them. Of course, chimps can do the same and Ebola is natural to the area and is carried by chimps and can be transmitted to humans.

West African Chimp

My friend Richard in a pre-Covid mask our guides gave us to protect the chimps from any diseases we might have and to protect us. 

Young Chimp

As we stood below the tree watching the chimps the mother chimp started throwing feces and urine at us which we ducked to try and avoid. Then the mother crawled down the tree with her baby on her back momentarily staring at us from only 20 feet away and then racing off on the ground. Our ranger guide grabbed my arm and told me to let her go and not crowd her. 

Our Ranger Guide

He also pointed to the treetops, hundreds of feet above us and whispered the rest of the troop has returned.  It turns out the troop did not venture off to the river as first thought and they had returned. The jungle was now enveloped in chimp sounds and we watched in awe as huge male chimps with hulking figures came swinging into view in the canopy above. They kept a close watch of our movements and also began throwing branches and feces at us. We watched them for an hour, as the social dynamics of the group played out. The larger, older chimps would smack the younger submissive ones as they displayed their dominance. After watching them for an hour and dodging more feces, we had to pack up and start our long journey back to San Pedro.

Chimp Raucous in the Jungle

One of the dominant and largest chimps

A nut that a chimp opened with a rock

After breakfast, we left the camp and headed back the same way we arrived on foot and by boat. Our vehicle that we abandoned on the other side of the mud pit just one day earlier and its driver was waiting for us at HQ. It was about noon, and we had about 6-7 hours of driving to get to San Pedro. As is all too common in Africa, we were only a few hours on the road when our h=vehicle suddenly died. Our driver kept insisting it was no problem and he popped the hood and played around with some wires. The area of our breakdown was remote and exposed in the heat. There were few passing cars and there was no cell phone reception. I communicated with our driver, who only spoke French via a translation app on my phone. he kept insisting that everything was ok. But we could see the panic on his face, and we knew otherwise. On occasion motorbike drivers would stop and inspect our vehicle’s engine. Everyone would weigh in on their theory of what was wrong with our vehicle and then they would continue on. We tried to jump start the vehicle by pushing it down the hill to no avail. After an hour of this, I decided it was time for us to hitchhike and jump ship. We waived down a passing car and offered him money to take us to San Pedro. His car a sedan without 4wd was visibly in rough shape and looked like it was on its last leg, but it was better than our broken-down car. So, we set off listening to ivory Coast rap music set to highest volume level in the vehicles crackling stereo system.  The driver was a stern, big guy and the banditry warnings in this area were on my mind. At times because of the dust being kicked up by other vehicles, visibility was next to nothing and despite this the driver drove like a bat out of hell. But we did finally arrive at our hotel. Our driver delivered us safely but exhausted to the hotel. We were covered in dirt and the shower that night and pizza and cold beer was well deserved.

Old French Colonial Town of Grand Bassam

Day 4 & 5: In the morning we were able to sleep in, enjoy the beach in San Pedro and in the afternoon, we set off to Abidjan on our domestic flight. We stayed at a real nice hotel-5 Star Sofitel Hotel courtesy of Richard. Then on our last day on the way to the airport to catch our flight to Conakry, Guinea we visited the old French Colonia beach town of Grand Bassam. grand Bassam has beautiful beaches but what I liked the most about it is the old abandoned French colonial mansions. We wandered the streets visiting abandoned buildings from another era and we finished our time in the country by having lunch and a beer at the beach restaurant where only a few years ago a band of Islamic Militants from Mali attacked killing 19 people mostly French tourists. Hard to imagine in a place so far removed from Mali, why the terrorists would attack this place.

Abandoned French mansion 

Abandoned French mansion 

Graffiti Inside French mansion

Local man who lives in abandoned French mansion 

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