As the sleek, blunt-nose "La Gazelle" pulls into the Treichville station at the start of its run, agile young men jump onto its sides and clamber hurriedly through the cars' partly opened windows to secure seats for themselves, family members or a paying client.
Before they get through the windows, guards in khaki uniforms standing along the platform as the train slowly brakes beat them on their backs and legs with long, hard rubber truncheons -- the price for jumping on the moving train. And when the train finally stops, the jostling platform crowd, often more numerous than the seats, pushes, fuses and cusses its way onto "La Gazelle," the toughest scramblers usually being rotund market women with their 100-pound bags of goods who refused to hire one of the window jumpers. Woe to the ears and body of the unsuspecting passenger who gets between one of these street-wise, hefty merchants and a seat.
True railroad aficionados, if visiting West Africa should not pass up the delightful trip on the Abidian-Niger Railway's smooth-running and comfortable express trains, both "gazelles" and "rams," that daily make the 725-mile journey to the rarely visited plateau city of Ouagadougou. Even Ouagadougou, the small dusty capital of Upper Volta in the semi-arid Sahelian plain, has its special pleasures and surprise that add a memorable end to a relaxing trip.
But those who want to skip the enlivening morning race for places in the perpetually hot third-class cars or the stuffed, leather-covered seats in the air-conditioned second-class cars can reserve the uncompetitive luxury of first-class air conditioned cabins in the sleeping car. First-class sleeping accommodation for the 20-hour trip is $95 per person each way.
On a recent, bright Sunday morning, I arrived at Abidjan's portside Treichville train station a half-hour before La Gazelle's 10:20 a.m. scheduled departure. The packed platform was a flowing riot of color, fried food smells, gaudy hawkers, crippled beggars and shrieking babies. The Upper Voltan men wore their pastel-colored long robes with matching cloth caps. The women, their babies strapped to their backs, were wrapped in richly colored swaths of material topped by tall head wraps cut from identical cloth.
The peddlers, their hands and heads covered with mulitcolored, wide-brim hats, leather handbags, umbrellas and all manner of plastic gadgets, ran back and forth across the ground-level tracks as the truncheon-wielding policemen tried to keep them off the platform. Only a few managed to scramble up into the crowd, showing their wares to the curious and the interested as they watched over their shoulders for the khaki-garbed servants of law and order. And stacked in pillar-like piles among the crowd were trade goods: packs of cloth, burlap sacks stuffed with yams, and heaps of colorful enameled metal basins imported from Eastern metal basins imported from Eastern Europe.
The men and women traders in the crowd would carry all of his merchandise out into the town markets that line the railway through upcountry Ivory Coast and Upper Volta. In the meantime, a fat, bored-looking woman trader, sitting on a stack of rice-filled white sacks, admonished me to stop staring around in all directions and keep my eyes on my suitcase. "The platform is full of thieves, monsieu," she said stoically. "Always, always."
Finally the train, pulled by a French-built, turbine-powered engine of 975 horesepower, rolled into the station at 10:10 a.m. Following the seat scramble, the maroon and mustard-colored train pulled out of the station 20 minutes late at 10:40. It rolled onto the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Bridge, named after the Ivory Coast's only president in 20 years of independence, and across the Ebrie Lagoon, the still water of which shimmered blindingly through the train's windows in the sunlight.
After a brief stop at the downtown station, where only a few additional passengers waited, the train was on its way to Ougadougou (pronounced wah-gah-DU-gu). It ran through Abidjan's urban landscape, the thick, verdant tropical growth of the coastal forest, raced along across the yellowed grass of the dry season savanna and up onto the sparse flatlands of the Mossi plateau in Upper Volta.
The city of Abidjan, which resembles a small Manhattan and is a major commercial center in West Africa, grew up around the railway. The line's original railhead was on the city's downtown commercial plateau section, which is today the first stop after the larger Treichville station.
It was named the Abidjan-Niger Railway because when it was begun by the French in 1903, the train was planned to run through Upper Volta and then East to the Niger capital of Niamey on the Niger River. But the line did not reach Ouagadougou until 1954 and, although there is a Terminus Hotel in downtown Niamey built years ago in anticipation of the railway's arrival, there are no plans at present to extend it to Niger.
As La Gazelle begins its climb up out of Abidjan, it passes through the back of the city's Adjame quarter, the area where the first African laborers who worked on the railway settled. Here there are the outer edges of markets with their mounds of garbage, outhouses, the workyards of several busy furniture shops and Adjame's Grand Mosque.
At the first stop outside the city, as at every one of the numerous daylight stops thereafter, women come up to the car windows and doors with metal basins full of pineapples, coconuts, oranges, boiled eggs, deep-fried sugar-covered dough balls and the ubiquitous white and red kola nuts, the kernels of which are chewed throughout West and Central Africa as a mild stimulant. Some women sold bottles of drinking water and others spicy meat sandwiches on French bread.
The forest belt landscape flashes different shades of green through thick, hanging vines. The green is broken suddenly by a patch of bamboo forest, endless neat rows of the broad, rectangular leaves that dominate the banana plantations or a circular cluster of village huts.
Lunch, like all the meals, was very appetizing. The dining room car has comfortable, leather-covered, highback chairs that make both eating and looking out into the passing forest a pleasant pastime.The lunch menu was delicate shrimp fritters, followed by tender rabbit in mustard sauce, a selection of cheese and tasty, fried sugared-bananas for $20 (add $5 to $10 for your selection of wine, served chilled, of course).
By the end of lunch, the train had reached the town of Dimbokro, where the tropical forest gives way gradually to the savanna. In the dry season, many of the yellow grass fields were being consumed by wind-whipped orange flames or were already ash-blackened patches or ground as farmers cleared bush and prepared the ground for the crop-growing rainy season.
At 4:19 p.m., we arrived at Bouake, the Ivory Coast's second largest city, and were greeted by a mob scene as too many people tried to get on the train in the third- and second-class cars.
Dinner, served after 7 p.m., surpassed lunch by starting out with an elegant omelette, followed by roast leg of mutton served with buttered stringbeans, cheese and ripe fruit. When I returned to my cabin, the steward had already made up the bed. The train, still on the savanna, was moving at its top speed of 50 miles an hour along the narrow-gauge (39:37 inches) welded track. The click-clack rhythm gradually rocked me into a deep sleep.
The air conditioning proved to be too cold during the night and travelers are advised to bring a heavy sweater during the dry season. Africa's interior plateaus can become quite cool at night, especially during the dry seasons.
At the border crossing on the Ivory Coast and Upper Volta, I was awakened at 1 a.m. by an Upper Voltan soldier making a customs check; he was polite and friendly while asking if I had "anything to declare."
Dawn brought a red-tinged scene of the dusty Sahelian plain, the flat monotony of which was broken by widely spaced trees and the dark-brown mud walls of a string of villages.
At 8:19 a.m., just an hour and 41 minutes behind schedule, we arrived in Ougadougou. Veteran visitors to the city said the only noticeable difference since the Army coup last November was the Army edict closing all the bars from 7 a.m. to noon and 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
"It is part of the Army's reform program," said Upper Voltan Fred Guirma. "Closing the bars keeps the civil servants at work."
About a mile from the train station is the Hotel Independence, which offers spartan but cleans rooms for $25 a night. Surprisingly, in the lobby, there are dealers who sell some genuine African art and some fine copies. Their stalls are near the booths of other art dealers who sell the usual tourist fare.
The food at the Independence is barely digestible, but a short, dusty walk away -- across the street from Ouagadougou's main open-air market -- is the L'Eau Vive Voltaique (the living Voltaic waters) restaurant.
L'Eau Vive is run by a Catholic order of nuns called the Missionary Workers. The nuns -- African, European and Asian -- wait on the tables in street clothes. All the meals are delicious and the restaurant is the favorite dining place for the Upper Volta elite, French residents and the diplomatic corps.
Across the street you can walk through the market and examine the metal basins full of soupy, homemade peanut butter sold by the spoonful by the market women. The Ougadougou market is also unique for the pink-faced vultures that perch on top of the metal-screened meat stalls.