Liberia to Guinea – 6k in 8 hours

An early start as we are crossing the border to Guinea. It took a couple of hours to drive slowly down the slippery roads back to Yekepa, and a couple of wrongs turns (the gps doesn’t work here) before we arrived at the Liberia border post. The are highly unused to tourists here, and today they had 19 of us plus a group of 8 Czech tourists. The details of every passport had to be manually recorded so we sat in a grubby hut waiting for the officials to fully satisfy themselves that we could be allowed to leave. That took two hours! 

Women going to Bossou market
 Then we had a checkpoint, Guinean immigration and another check point. Another two hours. The highlight of the day was buying a woman traders entire stock of bananas at the border with our left over cash. Everyone here is pretty honest with prices of food as they are totally unused to tourists. 20 bananas for $1

Locals watching the truck go by

We finally got into Guinea and promptly got stuck in the mud 1km from the border for an hour. There were many helpful offers of advice from the assorted officials and passersby, and one of them even helped digging. I can’t fathom how Jason and Zoe have the energy reserves to dig out the truck, deal with officials and local hassle, and manage the passengers. I continue to be amazed by both of them 
Ladies in the road wandering to town
We arrived in Bossou by 4pm and pitched camp at the chimpanzee research facility who are taking us to see the wild chimps tomorrow. Consistent with past days it was gloriously sunny at 4.30 and then the thunder rolled in and by 5pm it was torrenting down.

Passengers on a truck bound for Liberia

It was an uneventful day in overlanding, we are now about 6k as the crow flies from camp last night and it took us 8 hours to get here.  
Lunch was lentil salad, dinner is lentil salad…. I can’t wait to get to a town with a steak, which I reckon is at least a week more.  

Local boys hanging out

Today’s high brow after dinner gossip revolves around butt cracks! Two of the guys are serial offenders! One in particular, at the royal age of 48, has not learnt how to pee standing up without letting his pants hang all the way down at the back, treating the whole truck to a view of half his butt (and yes his pants have a fly so there is no excuse)! Not pleasant. This is a source of much irritation on the truck, but of course no one will tell the offender but we will keep grumbling amongst ourselves. Oh the joy of truck dynamics and it has only been two weeks

Camp at the Bossou chimp research facility

The ‘shower’ in Bossou

Bossou November 28, 2016

Liberia – the abandoned mine at Yekepa/Mt Nimba national park

I woke up to the fetid smell of rotting foliage and the sounds of two locals chatting and walking past our tents. They must have been a bit surprised to have come across 8 tents and a truck in the middle of a road. It was 6.15, so I thought I would get up and go for a run up the hill. The tarmac was slippery, covered with rotting jungle and headed steadily uphill…. it was hard work. I caught up with the locals after a couple of km, one of them had a high vis vest with security written on it, and the other had a shotgun, but they were pretty friendly.

Porridge for breakfast accompanied by the buzzing of angry African Bees and flies. The plan for today was to head 10km back to a lovely water hole to camp for a night and chill out before heading into Guinea tomorrow. We made good time and took the turn off to the waterhole. We were planning on keeping a low profile, as it is better for the locals not to know we are in the area, as they are apparently not too friendly. We were stopped by a ranger half way to the campsite who was adamant that we had to turn back. Always fun and games. Eventually a park officer with an official t-shirt and brochure showed up, and a negotiation ensued as to whether we would have to pay an illegal entry fine. They knew we had been in the vicinity last night as the truck was seen in Yekepa. Zoe triumphed again and the fine was waived, but we do need to pay $19 each for entry and camping fees.  Apparently last time the truck was here the park wasn’t actually in operation and it was free. Our new friend the ranger escorted us to our campsite via a wonderful array of abandoned mine machinery from the pre-civil war iron ore mine which has taken out huge hunks of the hill.   

Aminah and the camp beside the quarry lake in the far distance

It was delightful to make camp at 1pm, dry out the tent, do some laundry using water from the waterhole (which turns out to be the result of mine digging and apparently is full of submerged equipment), wet wipe the tent and have a cup of tea. Some people went for a hike but it was stonkingly hot. Others treated us to the sight of them washing in their speedos…., (note to all, no one looks good in speedos, unless you are a world class athlete).   
I went for my second run of the day as the rains came in about 4.30. Glorious! It is astoundingly how little activity you get on an overland truck! I am going a bit nuts from sitting on my butt all day. Cook group fed us a fine and copious vegetarian tikka masala, which was helpful as there were severe grumbles at lunchtime about the meagre rations for lunch which ran out before everyone had finished.   

Aminah the truck in the mine ruins

The gossip and chatter continues to be high brow. Today’s topic was bush poo-ing. Three ladies on the truck have confessed to be fundamentally unable to poop in the bush – ”my sphincter shuts down until I find a real toilet’. Much discussion ensued from us old timer travellers who prefer to go au natural and dig out own holes rather than use flyblown pit toilets or filthy hotel loos. The squatting pose is also better for you. Eventually the nervous poopers confessed that the problem was having to publically take the trowel so everyone on the truck knows what you are doing….. hilarious! Everyone craps :-).   
Went to bed by 9pm before the gin fuelled conversation deteriorated further.

Becky coming out of our tent as the sun goes down
 Onward to guinea tomorrow!
Yekepa, November 27, 2016

Liberia – onward to Yekepa, camping on the road

I apparently broke an overland record this morning! In the 20 combined years that Jason and Zoe have been leading trips, I am the first person to ever ask for a pee stop within the first 30 minutes. Note to self, one litre of coffee in the morning is not a good idea!

Pumping from the village well

JAfter a leisurely drive for a couple of hours, we found a village where the chief was willing to let us fill up our drinking water tank from the well in exchange for a few dollars. The process takes an hour or so, and is highly entertaining for the village blokes, most of whom haven’t seen women in short shorts and tank tops jumping up and down pumping water before. Within 20 minutes most of the village was out watching and enjoying the spectacle. Eva and I entertained the kids by singing and taking pictures – they love looking at their photos and will grab your phone and swipe through to laugh at themselves. The kids were fascinated with our hair (‘soft soft’) and Eva’s tattoos (‘snake’ and ‘dragon’), and we were liberally stroked. Not having been exposed to many tourists (or perhaps any), the kids didn’t ask for money or sweets, and were entirely content playing games with us.

We made it back onto the main road at Gbanga and enjoyed the tarmac roads for 100km to Ganta. At this point it was 2pm and we were less than 50k from our destination so I excitedly contemplated a leisurely afternoon run, a swim perhaps and a bit of a read. Aaaaahhh, things never go to plan in West Africa. A truck was stuck in the road. The group of locals were amenable and up for a chat, and we waited while the truck was dug out of the road by a digger.  

At the next place where a truck was stuck, a bunch of passengers from a stranded 4wd came up for a chat and demanded food and water. ‘You white people, you must have food and water, give us some’….., they were from a nearby town and not friendly at all. As is standard practice, I told them we were out and suggested they try the village well 200m down the street, as if you give to one, you end up having to give to everyone. We eventually managed to get through at 4pm after a prolonged wait (giving me further credits towards the PHD in waiting I am earning here in Africa).

Waiting in the shade of the truck
Eventually we arrived at Yekepa, described as a ‘Truman show’-esque town in the lonely planet, I guess because it is a mining town that is planned. We left the main road at the mine plant and headed up a little used track into the Mt Nimba forest reserve. It got dark, and the road deteriorated quickly with the forest closing in on what was a 4metre wide concrete road narrowing to a 1m wide gap between the trees at waist level. We eventually got stopped in our tracks by a tree that had half fallen in the road and the truck can’t get under it. Hmmmmmm. This overlanding gig is never boring!. We started reversing and couldn’t go far. So it is pitch black and we are parking up for the night in the road. The jungle is encroaching on all sides, so we are having to pitch on the remnants of the old lorry road which lead up the mine, leaving space for anyone who might pass at some point early on the morning and hopefully they don’t hit us.  
Am amused with the anthropology experiment going on in front of my eyes…., tensions continue to build on the truck, inevitable when we are stuck in a truck for ten hours every day in hot and sweaty conditions. Some people pull their weight more than others, and others do bugger all. It grates those who do more. I am not one of those who do more, I try to do my fair share. One guy actually gets told off regularly as he is unable to stop doing everyone’s jobs in an OCD way and he can’t sit still (my roomie describes him as Forrest Gump meets Rainman). I am beginning to think this trip is 10% about travelling in west Africa and 90% about figuring out how to survive (and ideally thrive) with the other 18 weird personalities on the truck.
Yekepa, November 26, 2016

Liberia – heading up country to Kpatwee

I was sad to pack up and leave tranquil Libassa this morning.  My nose was even sadder to be reacquainted with the truck, the bins smell (while emptied they haven’t been cleaned), there is damp laundry hanging all over the place and worse, some of our companions don’t seem to have fully availed themselves of the laundry services and showers that were on offer.  If their pits smell this bad now, I fear for my nostrils in five days time after four nights of ‘bush camping’ (a glamourous term for a patch of dirt where we park with no running water, no electricity  and not even a stream).    After deliberations with my tent mate, we have decided that attempts to clean our truck mates and the truck will ultimately be futile!  Instead we are planning to invest in some tiger balm to liberally apply beneath our nostrils to deaden our sense of smell.

We headed into and then out of Monrovia after stocking up on food, passing through the ‘red light’ market.  As is the usual overlanding way, there has been at least two hours of waiting around doing bugger all – waiting after breakfast for everyone to pack and load the truck, waiting for a couple of hours while cook groups did their grocery shop and Zoe went to get our visas. I am getting a masters degree in waiting.

One of my fave signs of the whole trip

As usual, our cookgroup was harmonious and organised and did our shop on budget and in record time. Amusingly other groups provide a wonderful display of cross cultural breakdowns – the most amusing being a passive aggressive refusal of one chap to even go into the supermarket ‘well, you don’t need me as you have already decided what you want to do…..’. Highly amusing!
Liberian locals are markedly more grumpy and less welcoming than the Sierra Leonians.   We were asked not to take photos as we headed out through town as the crowd has been known to turn violent on passers by.   It was crowded and manic but not unbearably so. We weren’t really noticing in any case as we had found cheese, ham, donuts and bread at the supermarket, so most of us were stuffing our faces and trading choice morsels around the truck in preparation for a few days without much food.

A relatively short drive of five hours from the capital and we arrived in Kpatwee at the waterfall just before nightfall. Honestly I would not have driven five minutes off the main road in NZ to see a similar waterfall, and in this case we drove an hour from the highway over bumpy dirt roads.  

After a charming negotiation with the locals, Zoe secured us access to camp for the night and they even dug us a pit toilet. I went for a swim in the river and then used a bucket of water to have a quick wash. We had an attentive audience of locals who stood in a silent line in the dark and pouring rain and watched us cook dinner, do the dishes and pack up the truck. Am heading to bed now under their watchful eyes which appear every now and then when the lightening flashes.

Camping at the falls – the water did a brilliant job drowning out the snoring

Kpatwee Falls is the main tourist site in northern Liberia. It is amusing how few tourist sites there are in west Africa, and how far you have to go to get from one to the other. I did know this before coming so had managed my expectations down. For a couple of others on the truck, west Africa is their first trip in Africa, which is an unusual choice given the great infrastructure and sights in all the other regions of Africa. One of my truckmates did say she wasn’t expecting sites or wildlife but wanted to come as her first trip to Africa in any case for the people and the culture. Frankly am not sure how much engagement you have with people and culture if you are spending 10 hours a day on a truck of smelly westerners but I guess I will find out.  

Sunset at Kpatwee

Kpatwee, November 25, 2016

Liberia – Being a bad tourist

We had three silent children observing us for an hour eating breakfast and packing the truck this morning from our roadside bush camp. They were irritating one of the passengers, but I imagine I would go stare too if a bus load of foreigners turned up and camped in a park near my house. Worse, imagine if things were reversed and a truckload of smelly African overlanders pitched up in some parkland in the US, I suspect they would get a less friendlier welcome than this truckload of extremely smelly Europeans normally get when we stop on some villages’ land.

Glamorous downtown Monrovia

It took about two hours to get to the outskirts of Monrovia, and another hour to navigate the traffic to get to the embassy. Zoe did a great job sorting out our visas, but it is inevitably slow and tedious to have 19 people fill out forms in concert.

Stinky overlanders in the Côte d’Ivoire embassy

Then we had three hours to enjoy the delights of Monrovia. The key decision to make is whether to be a good tourist and go see the sights (a Masonic temple, a bridge, and a few churches) or to be a happy tourist and go eat the buffet at the royal hotel, use a proper loo for the first time in a week, bask in the aircon, and get on wifi. 2 out of 17 of us were good tourists (not me), and the rest of us were blissfully happy stuffing our faces with fish tacos and guacamole, revelling in the spotless loo, and catching up on emails.

Our plans changed again today, rather than driving 5 hours back to Robertsport (Liberias famous surf area), we headed 90 minutes out of town to the ecolodge at Libassa for a couple of nights to wait for our visas.    We had planned to camp, but my tentmate and I figured out for an additional $40 each we could have a bed, a fan, a loo and a warm shower.  Bargain!  I sang in the shower!  First warm shower since leaving the UK 10 days ago.  And we felt undeniably smug when the heavens opened and it poured down for two hours on our fellow truckmates in their tents.

Had a lovely cool sleep and am planning a big day of doing not much at all!  Some laundry, a run, and a long nap 🙂

Not moving far from here today – eco lodge Libassa

A day in the life of overlanding in west Africa

On a typical day you wake up early, either when the generator kicks in or when the sun comes up. Scrabble around in the tent, decide whether or not your clothes stink enough to merit a change, or whether you can endure one more day in the same gear. Pack up…. Deflate the thermarest and wrestle it into the bag. Fold up the silk sleeping sheet which was not necessary in the steaming night. Round up your still damp laundry from the night before and shake the spiders out. Squish everything into the backpack battling to keep the roaches out of your pack. Fold the tent, carefully!, making sure there are no passengers (roaches and large spiders) and that the tent is as flat as possible so it folds easily. If not folded properly it takes 15 goes and a near hernia to get it back in the tent bag. I am a master, mine always goes in first time.

Cook group prepping breakfast

On to breakfast. The cook group will have inevitably made eggs and bread, on rare occasions we are treated to cereal (very expensive here). Inhale large coffee (actually more like dirty water than real coffee but it is the best we can do). Then make lunch for the truck – more baguette, more eggs, sometimes tuna, sometimes pasta salad, sometimes a pink mystery luncheon meat (blech), on a good day some tomatoes and avocado.

Mosquito bitten overlander legs

Pack up the truck, everything has its place down to the sanitiser by the door. We squish ourselves into the truck, navigating around everybody’s washing strung up from the ceiling. Loud chatty people down the back, quieter readers up the front. Negotiate your place in the charging queue for your device (occasionally contentious). Drive, drive, drive some more.   
Stop every two hours or so to pee in the bush – guys to the front, women to the back (keeping the paper to put in the truck bin and reduce pollution). At some point we start the inevitable snacking, sharing squashed biscuits and half melted chocolate. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)

Loo at Tiwai camp – one of the nicer ones on our trip

Pass a small village where pale skin is seldom seen and enjoy the fact that the kids run after you and adults wave, and unlike other parts of Africa, they arent begging, they are just surprised to see you. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)
Pause for Zoe to get out of the truck to see if we can make it through the enormous puddles and/or for Jason to check we are on the right road. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)

Zoe in the road checking the water depth on the ‘highway’ from Sierra Leone to Liberia

Eventually eat your squashed sandwich and fantasise about yummy food from home. Try not to acknowledge the growing stink from your neighbours. Drive, drive, drive some more
Navigate a checkpoint. All involve a big smile (from us) and a friendly ‘how are you’. Some involve a stop and a protracted set of questions. All involve the ‘officials’ checking out Zoe’s legs. Drive, drive, drive some more. (Repeat as required)

Bush camp at the side of a dirt road

Eventually, at some point when dark threatens, we make camp (normally somewhere the guys know). Ideally there is water and power. Often not. By this time we might have been on the road for 10 hours but only managed to go 100km on a good day or 20 on a bad day. Put tent up (avoiding snorers). Try and find some water to clean yourself and wash your smelliest laundry. Hang up yesterdays laundry which still hasn’t dried. Make some tea. If you need the loo, don’t forget to take the trowel. Hang out and wait for dinner (keener ones will do bootcamp of squats and sit ups). Depending on the cook group dinner will be at 7 or as late as 9.30, but will always more or less be pasta/rice and some type of tomato based sauce. Have more tea. Go to bed and dream of having a hot shower.  
It sounds pretty grim, but it’s not. While it isn’t luxurious it is quite fun. For sure this will be my one and only overlanding experience as I am too much of a solo traveler, but it is fun and you get to see things, places and people you would not see on normal trip. And if you are going to have a proper overlanding experience (no internet, no phone, no other trucks, wild camping), then west Africa is the only place to do it