Guinea to Côte d’Ivoire – Sleeping in the customs post at Gbapleu

I started the day with a misty run through Nzerekore, watching the town wake up at 6.30. Families washing in the street, kids starting the long trek to school, vendors setting up their stalls for the day, young kids starting to make their water selling rounds, goats and chickens wandering around for food and the very persistent drone of the mototaxis taking people to work.  

Kids chasing the truck in Guinea to say hi

While having no internet, running water, electricity, or toilet is fine for me for a week or so, I am reminded every day that this is life for 99% of the people we pass in the truck. In most of these countries, literacy rates for women are less than 30%, genital mutilation of young girls is up to 98% (e.g. in Guinea where FGM he is technically illegal), and life expectancy is about 50. Most people here only eat once a day, and it is rice and oil. If I had been born an ordinary woman in most of the countries I have visited I would never have made it through primary school. It puts into perspective how wonderful and easy my life is, and does stop me moaning (sometimes) about having not enough food. I am grateful every day for the amazing life I have, and that I was born where I was.  

Curious kids staring at the truck as we approach the Guinea Liberia border

We backtracked to Lola and Gogota and found the dirt road to the Ivory Coast border. We passed a few villages were Babus were clearly in short supply as the kids chased the truck waving and smiling as we drove through. We stopped at immigration and we’re surrounded by a ‘plague of children’! Guinean exit was relatively straightforward as Zoe had come up a few days earlier to check we could pass, as there are very few tourists coming this way. 

Kids who emerged from bathing in the river to check out the truck

Kids in Gbapleu

We were aiming to make camp relatively close to the border as the area further into Côte d’Ivoire (Danane and Man) is a bit sketchy and was a rebel stronghold during the wars. We will go through there tomorrow but won’t be hanging about. Once we passed the border and got to the customs post 3k later, we asked the local village if we could camp there. We ended up being welcomed into the customs agents staff quarters and having water heated up on the fire for hot bucket showers with the village chiefs’ blessing, and pitching our tents in the covered living rooms (no glass in the windows and concrete floors) between their bedrooms (putting the tent inners up so we were protected from mozzies). 

Village kids checking us out at the customs post in Gbapleu

 We had an incredibly warm welcome! I can’t imagine sleeping at a customs post anywhere else in the world! This for sure is part of the magic of overlanding! The customs chief was extremely friendly and gave me his address. I did assure him that I was married and not interested. He assured me he was married but had room for more wives. Hmmmmm.

Very curious audience watching the tents go up at the customs post

Gbapleu December 2, 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

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