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

Sierra Leone to Liberia

We had a restful night roadside and were up and eating bush porridge by 7. My tentmate and I are now masters at packing up and breaking down our tent – 15 minutes in total.

The back of the truck

We headed off, 30km to go to the border. The sat nav said 35 minutes. The two first trucks we passed said it had taken them three days. I hoped it was closer to the former than the latter. We made painstaking but steady progress for 3 hours, with Jason and Zoe making frequent sorties from the truck to figure out the best line through the deep mud. In three hours we went 8 km, I could have walked, I would have been faster 🙂
Jason has a colourful turn of phrase and treats Amineh (the truck) like a lover. With Zoe in the drivers seat this morning, Jason makes frequent exhortations to ‘give her some beans….’ combined with making semi erotic hand signals to guide Zoe through the wet muddy patches. My admiration for their tenacity and skill continues to grow. I guess they have no choice, we really have nowhere to go but forward as apparently the truck from yesterday will be blocking the way back to Kenema for the foreseeable future. I am beginning to see the appeal in the security of being on board the truck. While it might not be as swift or light as bush taxis or motorbikes, we have enough food and water to survive the road for a week or more if we get stuck.
A few of the passengers are trying to predict when we will arrive at the border…… an entirely fruitless occupation. We are in West Africa! It is what it is and we will get there when we get there. This trip is doing a remarkable job of helping me practice my serenity…… everything here is out of my control so I have no choice but to roll with it.

School kids excited to see Pumoy (white people)

By 3pm we had finally made it to the Liberian border….., pretty good timing given the state of the roads and what Jason was expecting this morning. And it only took two hours to navigate the borders – pretty quick in Africa, and joyously, Zoe our guide deals with all the officials so the rest of us sit on the truck and eat nuts and plaintain crisps from the roadside vendors.
We didn’t have time to make it to our original destination for last night. The roads on this side of the border are amazing (i.e. Sealed) so we made good time en route to Monrovia where we need to be tomorrow to apply for our Côte d’Ivoire visas. So we made camp roadside about an hour after crossing the border. We are on night 3 with no running water, electricity or flushing loos. I am tremendously grateful to my tentmate who had industrial supplies of wet wipes which she is generously sharing with me. I am used to not showering when I am hiking, but you do need to be mindful of the nostrils of others on the truck. I am also becoming unpopular and popular with my truckmates as I publicly called out all of the snorers and won’t pitch my tent until I know where they are going.

 The snorers are grumpy with me, but the light sleepers are delighted. Apparently there has been a lot unsaid on the truck before we arrived in Freetown, and I am not remotely shy about saying it :-).
Looking forward to wifi and good coffee for lunch in Monrovia tomorrow

Tuesday 22 November

Sierra Leone – Rainy season roadworks

The storm last night kept us nice and cool, but of course has meant the ground is extremely spongy and the hole in the road has filled up with water. We were more or less ready to go at 7.30. Then we had another four hours of helping the locals bail out the hole and fill it with logs.

Building the road

Then of course there was the protracted negotiations about who gets to traverse the hole first, and importantly how much we have to pay as a contribution for the village labour and logs that went into the hole. We managed to minimise payment by towing a few of the minibuses out.

Kids checking us out as we ask for directions

Tempers are beginning to fray, as was inevitable. A few of our fellow passengers are beginning to smell quite high and I instituted a ‘wear a shirt’ policy on the truck as the mental thought of all of the sweat from the shirtless guys soaking into the old carpet bus seats was fairly disgusting. There are some territorial disputes evolving over seat choices and the scarce space available for storing possessions……, and it is amusing to watch these play out with British politeness. I am using this as a rare and wonderful opportunity to practice my zen….. as long as I don’t let it bother me then it won’t.

Trucks wedged together
We didn’t get far en route to the border! We passed four schools in Zimmi, where a plague of children emerged to chase the truck, and for the first time, they shouted for ‘money, money, money’. Shortly after we passed the spot where Jason and the truck got stuck for 24 hours last year and they had to hire a crane to dig them out.  We didn’t get much further before we hit another hole with a broken down truck at around noon. We almost made it across but then we got bogged down and almost hit the truck next door. 

Zoe digging us out
Out came the spades and our newly made local friends lent a hand and started digging. Now at 4pm and we are still sitting on the side of the road as our valiant driver and guide and knee deep in mud digging the truck out with the help of a legion of locals. So far today we have driven 10km with another 40km to go to the border. Several locals, including police, have stopped to have a chat and apologise for the state of the roads. No one yet has gotten angry or aggravated that they are not able to get through, although the motor bikes are managing to pass.

The truck who towed us out and then promptly got stuck.
4.30 pm and we got towed out by a guy who promptly got stuck, so we hung around for another half hour to help tow him out, to no avail. His truck is still stuck in the mud at a perilous angle.
So, ten hours after breakfast and about 15-20 km along the road and we made camp in a wee nook on the side of the road. Poor Zoe and Jason are filthy and exhausted, everyone’s hot, smelly, grumpy and tired. We had a lovely dinner of cocktail wieners, frozen veg and couscous and went to bed as the bugs were out. Fingers crossed we get over the border tomorrow and I find some icecream.
Main highway from Freetown to Monrovia

Somewhere near Zimmi,  November 21, 2016

Sierra Leone – which way to Liberia?

I was up at 6 on not enough sleep as we were leaving early for the two day trip on dirt roads (‘the main highway’). I battled the cockroaches off and wrestled the tent into the bag, and made myself an extremely large cup of bad coffee (I am already dreaming of a flat white). We headed off just after 8 to find the road to Liberia. Be under no illusion that google maps will help you here, as the rainy season washes away the roads every year, and then the trucks just find a new way through – expanding the small roads between villages into this year’s highway. There are no street signs, and the best way to figure out which is the right road is to look for truck tracks. Then you have to ask where the road goes. Never make the mistake of asking ‘is this the road to X?’, as most locals will say yes regardless.  

It is going to be a long bumpy few days with the same view of a dirt red road until we get over the border, interspersed with a few mud hut villages every now and then. The further we go the more of an oddity we are for the locals. Many of the kids try to jump on the back for a free ride, so Zoe and Jason spend a fair amount of time shoo-ing them off. It is probably only a 150 km but the roads are muddy swamps. No doubt it will feel even longer, as given the heat, some of my fellow passengers are becoming pretty fragrant. Fortunately the truck is actually more comfortable than I had imagined, so while it is hot, it isn’t too cramped and my butt isn’t taking too much of a bashing 

Lunch break

We made pretty good time, probably about 100km, but didn’t quite meet our goal of getting past Zimmi. About 3k before the town we encountered a wonderful west African spectacle of a crowd of men trying to extract a minibus from the bog. While we could pass most of the road there was one section that would have been tricky and was blocked by the minibus. There was also a truck there that had been stranded for four days. 

 The enterprising locals were hard at work with chainsaws felling trees to throw into the deepest hole, and we were assured there was no way we were going to pass today. We backed up about two km to where we could pull off the road and we have pitched tents on a flattish clearing.

The main highway to Liberia with Zoe checking for depth

I was on cook group, and the thunder and lightening rolled in as we were prepping. The truck has a tarp which kept us mostly dry, and then Jason stripped off to have a shower under the tarp edges which had amazing water pressure. Most of the rest of us were inspired by his sensible use of natures resources. I grabbed some soap and had the best shower so far in west Africa, I even washed my hair and my shirt.
Dinner was pretty good, lentils and flatbread. And most of us retired early to bed to stay dry and enjoy the booming orchestra of the storm. 

Sunday November 20

Sierra Leone – Invisible Pygmy hippos in Tiwai

Finally a great quiet nights sleep in the tent, as the trucks resident snorer had sensibly pitched far from the rest of us, and without electricity there was no blaring music. 
We were treated to a lovely sunrise and a gentle canoe trip up the river in search of the elusive Pygmy hippo. Apparently the BBC were here for six weeks without a viewing, so we were not surprised to not see them.  

Amusingly we were ‘late’ leaving as they had to hack some bamboo to make seats for the dug outs – just in time manufacturing in action. I guess they hadn’t had time to make them in the six months since their last tourist visit.

Breakfast was greasy pancakes and lunch was rice with greasy cassava.  I went for a run after lunch and almost passed out in the heat, so i whiled away the rest of the afternoon in a hammock trying to ignore the kids who were climbing all over us, so excited to see some new people.   My big goal for the afternoon was to try and figure out the combination for my padlock which is stuck open.   Only 999 variants to try, the perfect way to occupy myself in a hammock.

The sun set at 6.30 and with no light there wasn’t much to do.  The thunder and lightening rolled in at 7.30, so we hustled to the tent for an early night after a dinner of more greasy cassava and rice.

Sierra Leone has been ravaged by war for a very long time and just as tourism had started to pick up, Ebola hit.   And sadly, west Africa doesn’t have the big tourist hits of neighbouring countries, nor is there much in the way of infrastructure.  Tiwai was lovely, and is apparently one of the country’s top potential tourist destinations, but it was a long way to go on very very rough roads.  As most of the primates were eaten during the war there wasn’t even that much wildlife to see.  So it will be a challenge for the village to make money from tourism.  OWA had donated to pay for a well for the village a few years ago and apparently it has meaningfully impacted child health outcomes in the village. I was proud to see that Phoenix soft drinks from NZ has partnered with the village to make “karma cola” out of the locally grown kola nut.  Fingers crossed for Tiwai, as it was a lovely village with delightful kids and friendly hard working adults.
The village farewelled us royally with a visit from the Kombo (the forest spirit) who comes to keep the kids in line, and some drumming and singing.  The kids were delighted as they had been let out of school especially.  
After an arduous drive back from Tiwai and a few obligatory security checks, we finally reached Kenema – home of the blood diamonds – at 4 on Saturday. We were lucky as if we had missed the ‘supermarket’ in Kenema it would have been slim rations for the next few days on the back roads until we reached Monrovia, and everything in Sierra Leone is closed on Sunday.
One of the curiosities of overlanding is that everyone cooks for their fellow passengers. You are divided into teams, given a budget and sent off to shop. Some teams work well – I had cunningly volunteered to join a team with a professional chef. We designed a menu which minimised effort and maximised speed to table – pretty key when you have 20 to feed, and don’t get cooking until 7pm. Other teams were not so harmonious, and in the absence of a tv last night i amused myself by watching the polite but increasingly frustrated exchanges between the cook team about what to do and how. One of the other challenges is that people have very different ideas about how much is enough food. At least four of us never get enough to eat, and so I am now carrying a whole extra bag of tuna, baked beans and muesli so I can get some proper size meals. One egg and bread or just two weetbix does not constitute a proper breakfast. The supermarket pickings were pretty slim, and anything really good (feta, muesli, chocolate) was out of our budget (400,000 leones or $50 to buy breakfast, lunch and dinner for 20 – try doing that at home)

Kenema seminary chapel

We were camping in the seminary in Kenema which appeared to be a blessed respite from the hustle and bustle of town, situated in a large area of parkland. We pitched our tent in the garden and I was looking forward to a quiet night. Unfortunately the devout security guard had other ideas, so between 3am and 6am, I was treated to a non stop monologue of prayers. At first I thought he was having an argument with someone given his tone of voice. And perhaps he was. His tone was fairly insistent that his sins be washed away…. I considered trying to absolve him myself just so he would stop talking. But I behaved and lay in the tent until the sun came up
Saturday November 19, 2016

Sierra Leone – Disco camping

None of us slept particularly well last night.  Our campsite in Bo was a hotel compound.  Some of us pitched on the tennis court where there was more space.  My roomie and I opted for the covered roof terrace, which was cramped, but meant we didn’t need the tent fly and would get some air.  I had also been quick to figure out who on the truck was a snorer and made sure we were far away from the nasal orchestra.  The only downside of our dry pitch was the proximity of the worlds largest generator which ran most of the night, and an Ibiza sized speaker which was reverberating bad pop through my tent.  After much pleading to the DJ, he did turn that speaker off around 10, so it was just deafening noise from the other speakers rather than ear bursting pain!  It must be some type of African ritual, as the neighbours across the road we’re trying to outcompete with their bad music also.  I question the commercial logic of the approach as there were only 4 customers in the bar, so am pretty sure they weren’t  even covering the costs of the electricity.  We could have slept inside, if we had ‘upgraded’ to a room, but the threadbare sheets, multitudes of cockroaches, and signs advising us to keep out the rats, made the $30 upgrade fee seem a little unappealing.   

Bo mosque

Bo didn’t have much to offer, and our matter of fact, and highly amusing, driver was upfront in confessing there was nothing to see but it was en route to Tiwai.  The highlight of the town was an immaculate Lebanese run supermarket (side note – there are 4000 Lebs here, and they run 70% of the countries grocery stores).   As well as wonderful snickers icecreams and ginger nuts, they had the some delightful cock flavoured soup and garlic hair cream.   No one is happier than a group of dirty tired hungry western overlanders in an air conditioned supermarket with icecream.  
Yummy cock soup

Garlic hair paste
We rolled into Tiwai in Amineh the truck to a loud chorus of “Pumoy, Pumoy” which means ‘whiteperson’ in the Mende dialect. Foreigners are few and far between on these parts, with the exception of a few aid workers who make their way up here over the dirt roads to see the primates on Tiwai island. And apart from Amineh, there has likely only been 1-2 overland trucks pass through each year. While we are all accustomed to the kids yelling and waving, we are pleasantly surprised to get a wave and a smile from almost everyone we pass. We must look like the travelling circus. It’s been a long day to get here. 90km from Bo, but the 60km on the dirt roads has taken us 5 hours.  

We were instant celebrities! The truck was surrounded by waving young kids and when I hopped off the truck I was swarmed by kids. One clinging to each leg and one on each hand. They took us around our campsite which was lovely and quiet. One toilet box and a shower cubicle with a bucket of water and a few hammocks. No running water, electricity or phone signal. Perfect!
Bo, November 16, 2016


Overlanding 101

November 15, 2016

Yesterday was the first day of my first group tour ever!   I have never signed up to travel with strangers before, mostly as I am happy to do my own thing at my own pace, so it will be an interesting few weeks.

I am overlandingwestAfrica.com from Freetown, Sierra Leone to Accra, Ghana with 17 others and a guide and driver/mechanic.  Many of my fellow passengers have been on the truck since Dakar, and it is an amusing motley crew.   The easy going Australian couple who have been overlanding since the eighties, a quirky American who is making flying visits to lots of countries to ‘tick them off his list’,  a couple of women in their 30s/40s who are going through self confessed ‘mid life crisis’, some overlanding virgins on their first trip to Africa, at least two trump supporters and quite a few seasoned travellers.   The youngest person on the truck is 26 and the oldest is 69, mostly brits and aussies with a Swiss, Dutch, Chilean, Norwegian and German thrown in for good measure.  Many of them are on the truck of a full three months.  One hardy (/bonkers) soul started this trip immediately after three months on a truck in west Africa…… I think the allure of overlanding might be wearing thin for her.  

We were briefed by the fearsome and indomitable Zoe (veteran Canadian overlanding guide) over dinner and allocated truck jobs, which range from bins, to fridge cleaning, locker loading and managing the charging station on the truck (a potentially stressful job given the number of devices on the truck).   Most jobs are daily, so I mindfully volunteered for kitty supervisor which I only need to do once a week.  No doubt I will chip in on another few jobs as we go.

We are getting ourselves sorted to leave Freetown.  Applications for our Guinea visas went in, with the usual rigmarole of ‘no sorry, we don’t issue visas here, no it’s not possible’….. to an eventual demand for a ‘special processing fee’ for foreigners and a rush service, and a bit of negotiating to get the fee down from usd 300 each to 200 each. We also have to get an extra visa for Mali as we are unsure if we can cross a key border between Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire so we might have to make a detour (yay, potentially a bonus country).

Everyone is making the most of the day in Freetown to enjoy running water and access to better food than you can get in tiny villages.  I have moved to a different (but still overpriced) hotel with the group, where it is possible to shower, although you do have to yell out the window to the owner who does some magic to make the water come on in your room eventually.
Nothing happens fast here!  Meals in particular will require at least an hour from when you order, even my eggs on toast for dinner took an hour.    Meals with 20 people take even longer to prepare…  collecting and counting the money from everyone for the bill takes the longest (last night it was 3,000,000 for dinner).  It is amusing to see what Truckmates have stocked up on at the supermarket.  I have lots of baked beans and tuna.  Vegemite, marmite, peanut butter, tea, gin, vodka, tonic and nuts seem to be firm favourites.    Two of our number have bought huge boxes of food from home.   90% ordered burgers for lunch! We are adhering to all the western stereotypes.

Heading off tomorrow!  Looking forward to starting camping.  Amusingly I did say to hubby that the one thing I didn’t want to do was share a tent with a trump supporter, and it turns out that I will be.  We are sure to have some challenging but friendly discussions under canvas in the next five weeks.

More when I get to the next wifi spot.

Sierra Leone – baking in Freetown, 

Arriving in Freetown is mildly bonkers.   The airport is inconveniently located at Lungi – 3 hours drive by road, 5 mins by helicopter (but they crash often, so not advisable) or 45 minutes by ferry.   It was a typically comical African process with hundreds of guys trying to facilitate your way.   Surprisingly the aggressive hassle factor was pretty low in spite of the crowds and the dark.    The plane was a fairly standard cast of characters for the region – a smattering of missionaries (I have already been given my first prayer literature), a large group of development workers (with huge suitcases), a legion of Chinese workers sporting huge phones who are here to work on infrastructure projects, and finally five overlanders ready to join a truck.

St. John’s church
My hotel in Freetown is an overpriced dump which took an hour to check me in – they have six rooms – but the aid workers beat me here so all eight of the staff were occupied with unloading their bags.  The mains electricity was out most of the night, so the generator was roaring and the aircon was on but doing nothing more than blowing out the occasional tantalising breeze on my leg, cruelly reminding me for a micro second of what functioning aircon would do.  There were no sheets on the bed, so thankfully I had a silk sleeping bag liner to put on the bed.   All this luxury for a mere $75 per night.  Am now awake ready to face Sunday feeling only slightly groggy and sweaty.  That feeling didn’t really improve with a cold shower…. I tried the hot but it was brown water and still cold 🙂

Breakfast was the standard African tourist fare – greasy omelette, white bread, Nescafé, but today’s offering was enhanced with a fiery ginger jam which was stonkingly good.   My appetite for brekkie endured in spite of having three very naked men performing their morning ablutions just under the restaurant.

The famous tree
I went for a wander around town to see the ‘sights’.  It’s Sunday so the women and kids are resplendent in their church gear.   I got a few stares, many offers of money exchange, and two people who asked me if I was Chinese.   But remarkably little hassle compared to other cities in the region.   The number one sight was an old tree in the middle of town which is ostensibly hundreds of years old, followed by a few ‘cathedrals’.   I thought about stopping somewhere for coffee but nothing was open.  This is the first capital city I have been to without an international chain hotel, so the reliable fall back option of an expensive coffee and a piece of not great cake was off the table also.

Sacred heart cathedral
Walking was a great wake up to my senses.  It is a high risk, high reward strategy to breathe in through your nose in Freetown.  If you are in luck there is a heady scent of ginger and spices, chicken cooking in chophouses, and the fragrant women passing by.  However you are equally (perhaps more) likely to be assaulted by the pungent scent of the open sewer that runs alongside the street.   Less risky is to keep your ears open, as with the right wind and in the right place, you are rewarded by a break in the cacophony of car horns with the uplifting harmonies from the choirs emanating from run down corrugated iron churches.

Slums near Congo cross
Time for lunch – I had retreated to the hotel as they ostensibly had a restaurant. In true African style I was given a huge menu to peruse at length, and when I went to order was told it was Sunday so they had chicken or fish, with rice or chips…….  doubt I am going to get to racing weight on this trip.    Grease ingested, now time for a nap
* note wifi is spotty at best in west Africa, so most posts will be photo lite until I get somewhere with decent signal
November 13, 2016