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

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