A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about border

The Adventure of Getting from A to B

The truck had sunk deep into the mud. In the middle of the road where a stream had made the already soft gravel into a regular mud bath. In a 40 degree angle, the truck’s right front wheel had disappeared in deep into the red mud.

all seasons in one day 28 °C
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Stuck

Stuck

It’s some of the hardest travel in the world. That’s the reason why West Africa isn’t overrun by travellers. West Africa’s biggest problem, both economical and for travellers and tourists, is its poor infrastructure. Nowhere is this truer than in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Many overlanders, driving from Morocco to South Africa (the most common type of tourist here), bypass this corner of the region entirely. They instead prefer to go directly from Senegal, through Mali, to either Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire. But I had never imagined the difficulties I faced getting from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to Monrovia, the capital of neighbouring Liberia.

Freetown

Freetown

Setting out from Freetown is a relatively comfortable drive, on a paved road with decent tarmac, to Bo, a regional capital in the centre of the country. The drive is supposed to take approximately three hours, but as our shared taxi broke down and was towed the last dozen kilometres into town that turned to four and a half hours. No matter, I would still make my connection the next morning. The poda-poda, or minibus, is only half full, but as the only daily connection to the village of Potoru, it’s actually scheduled. An hour’s drive in the paved road disappeared. Granted, pavement was missing for large parts and potholes were everywhere, but it was nonetheless a mostly paved road. Now the rest of the four-hour trip is on gravel, which quickly turns into mud. In places, the road is simply replaced by a continuous row of big holes full of muddy brown water.

Looking for pygmy hippos

Looking for pygmy hippos

I pause my trek towards the border at Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary for a few days, hoping to see the endangered and very elusive pygmy hippo. After two days of searching, I gave up. I’d been sitting on the lookout in the early morning rains for hours, trekked through the pitch black jungle well after midnight, and sailed through the swamp at sunset without any sightings. I hope my luck will change once I’d gotten to Liberia, where there would be more chances to catch a glimpse of the animal.

From Potoru public transport is non-existing during the rainy season. I can either wait for the first post-rains poda-poda, which will probably come through town two or three weeks from now, or I can hire a moto taxi. It’s pretty simple, really.

River crossing just before Zimmi

River crossing just before Zimmi

Driving along the mud tracks, which is called a road down here, for three hours brings me to the small market town of Zimmi. Here I hope to find onward transport to the border. Zimmi is just 44 km from Sierra Leone’s main border crossing with Liberia, so arriving in the early afternoon still gives me some hope of reaching the border crossing before it closes at 2000 hours. I’ll just repeat the important bit: this is the main border crossing between Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Having arrived here, there is nothing resembling onward transportation. That is unless I’ll jump on another moto taxi, their owners eager to take me to the border for wildly inflated prices. The terrestrial rain starts – once again – pouring heavily with no end in sight. I’m not going anywhere unless I’m under some kind of roof.

Sheltering from the rains

Sheltering from the rains

Seeking shelter under a small shack selling bootleg movies and charging cell phones, I meet Michael who’s managing the shop. When electricity is unavailable to most people, but mobile phones cheap, the business of charging phones booms in the smallest of towns. All you need is a generator and enough outlets to set up shop. Michael is also the second in command at the customs’ checkpoint on the outskirts of town. His paychecks are usually delayed for months if he’s paid at all, so he lives on the small shack’s income and the bribes paid at the checkpoint.

My truck

My truck

Michael offers me tea and arranges for the officers manning the checkpoint to check passing vehicles for an available seat on my behalf. For four hours not a single vehicle pass through town. Finally, a monster of a truck turns up. Not one of those regular cargo trucks, rather one looking like a military vehicle or an airport fire engine. With room enough for me, we are soon racing through the mud. The machine is probably the most powerful I’ve driving in. The driver, charging the otherwise impenetrable tracks as fast as the small, manoeuvrable moto taxies are able to, relied on raw power. We splinter thousands of branches as we ploughed through the trees and bushes encroaching on the road from the surrounding jungle.

We are rarely driving faster than 20 km/h, but this road – one of the worst I’ve ever driven – the speed is impressive. Along the way we are passing three 4x4’s that are stuck in the mud. Two of them had been abandoned long ago, while the third was being dragged out by fourth Landcruiser. A fifth 4x4 had overheated in the horrible conditions, and we had to tow it into the next village.

The helpless truck

The helpless truck

As dusk approached, we arrived at the scene of the truck’s proudest moment. A regular truck had sunk deep into the mud, almost tipping over. Weighing well over 25 tonnes it seemed like a lost cause… until we came around, that is. With an iron chain as thick as my arm – which snapped twice – our driver somehow manage to pull the truck out of its helpless position. Having come down the road as bad as this one, it seems almost silly. I will be a matter of time before the truck gets stuck again. When that happens there will be not monster machines around to save it.

No matter the impressive power of our engine, the 44 km still took more than four hours to complete. We arrive long after the border post had closed, and I’m forced to spend the night in a basic guesthouse here.

Moto taxies at the border

Moto taxies at the border

In all – without counting my stop at Tiwai – it have taken three days of back-breaking driving on whatever vehicle available to cover the 390 km from Freetown to the border. A distance Google Maps think can be done in less than six hours. Had I not hired a moto taxi or been lucky with the miraculously strong engine and instead relied solemnly on public transportation it would have taken much longer – I might still have been stuck in the mud between Zimmi and the border. Imagine my surprise the next morning when I found a well paved and smooth road on the Liberian side of the frontier. Here a shared taxi took me the 125 km to Monrovia in a couple of hours.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 01:49 Archived in Sierra Leone Tagged travel roads crossing public_transport country transportation border travelling frontier liberia west_africa sierra_leone hardship_ freetown monrivia Comments (0)

“Want a Ride for the Next 10 Days?”

Okay, that wasn’t precisely the way the offer was phrased, but it might well be the most accurate description of what has happened.

rain 22 °C
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Overlanding Africa

Overlanding Africa

So, apparently, I’ve been an overlander for the past few days. You know, one of those people who’ve spent a little too much time and money on their fancy car, then decides to drive around a continent or from the northern tip of Europe to the most southern point of Africa in it. Let’s just say, that the luxury of home brewed morning coffee and a nice leather seat in a 4x4 (which I don’t have to share with fellow passengers) is a big step up from what I’m used to. Even though it does require a bit of camping. “Backpacking” – if you can call it that in West Africa – is usually a matter of catching overcrowded public transportation and sleeping in damp, dirty and very basic accommodation. Running water and 24h electricity are luxuries I usually can’t afford – both are now installed in the Jeep I’m currently travelling in.

The main(!) border into Guinea

The main(!) border into Guinea

It all started with a bit of bad luck. Leaving Guinea-Bissau and heading to Guinea, I arrived in the border town of Gabu in the early afternoon. I knew it would be a longshot, but I hoped to find a car heading into Guinea on that same day. I did manage to locate the shared taxi, but even after three hours of waiting no other passengers heading in my direction had shown up. Instead, I had to wait another day and head to a hotel. Here, someone had parked a very nice Jeep out front. Clearly another Western traveller. My initial thought was straight out of low-budget travel’s A-B-C: “Sweet, I might be able to get a ride across the border for free and save €15.”

The Jeep

The Jeep

I got up early the next morning, primarily so I could hover around not too far from the Jeep. I definitely didn’t want it to leave before I had a chance to talk with the vehicle’s owner… To my luck, the owner was a cool Australian named Dan, who started the morning offering me coffee – and about 2 seconds before I could ask if he would possibly give me a ride across the border, he asked if I needed a lift. It almost – almost – makes me a bit ashamed looking back of how cynical I approached the situation.

Making friends

Making friends

Anyway, we crossed the border. We got asked for a few bribes. Got asked for a few more bribes. Didn’t pay any of them and were finally stamped in and cross the border. Overlanders and Westerners travelling by their cars, in general, get a lot more hassle from officials than I normally do. Being on public transportation, it’s the drivers' job to pay bribes, not mine. If asked, I can always just refer the police/military/militia/customs officer to my driver. Then it’s his job to pay the bribe for getting through the checkpoint. For overlanders, there are a few tactics to avoid paying. Not understanding the languish and playing dumb is one, which works if you're sure all your paperwork is good. In that way officers can't get money out of you by imaginary offenses like driving in sandals, passports that are not valid at night, having no permit to be on a specific road, or what else their imagination comes up with. Another tactic is to make friends by offering coffee, tea, cigarettes, etc.

The map's getting useless

The map's getting useless

After getting through the border, the roads deteriorated drastically. It’s no coincident that Guinea is notorious for having some of the worst roads in West Africa (that’s saying something). So we didn’t get all that far and had to overnight in the first larger town we reached on the Guinea side of the border before we could continue the next day. During those two day’s of travelling, we got along very well, and just agreed that move on together. First to a town called Mali (yes, it’s different from the country), then to the next place and so on travelling further and further. The days went past and we kind of just figure out where we would go from day to day. So far we have done so for a week, and we’re currently heading further into the rain forests, mountain plateaus and waterfalls of northern Guinea. So it’s going to be a few more days before we part ways.

Oh, and I’ll promise that the next blog entry is going to be more about those rain forests, plateaus and waterfalls...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 02:20 Archived in Guinea Tagged waterfalls military travel overland 4x4 police africa border backpacking travelling jeep guinea west_africa overlanding conakry bribery guinea_conakry overlander bribes fouta_djalon mountrains Comments (1)

Crossing Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland

It has been described as "one of the world’s most dangerous border crossings." I figured it would be an interesting 45-minute stroll.

sunny 29 °C
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Leaving Western Sahara

Leaving Western Sahara

There are plenty of exaggerations and wild rumours when it comes to travel stories. Admittedly, I don’t hold back bragging about any credible danger I might face. That’s, however, nothing compared to the bad reputation that the border crossing between Western Sahara and Mauritania has among travellers in this corner of the world. The official name of ‘No Man’s Land’ only adds to the mythical stories. While a German traveller was tragically killed in 2007 and another seriously injured when their car hit a landmine, the dangers of the border crossing do not merit the stories in my opinion. I’m not one to talk ill of the dead, but only the careless and the ill-prepared have anything to fear from this hopeless corner of the planet...

Did these blow up?

Did these blow up?

I’ve always preferred to walk across borders. Many are determined by rivers, mountain ranges or high walls. Moving across these at a walking pace gives me time to feel and reflect over the transition from one country to another – and often from one culture, one languish and one mindset to another. No Man’s Land might just be one of the wildest such passages I’ve ever done. The four kilometre trip is not just a walk through the Sahara Desert along a web of unpaved desert tracks; it’s a walk through what is, essentially, a good illustration of what the post-apocalypse will look like. It’s a scenery that I’ve never come across before during my travels – and for me, places that don't remind me of anywhere else are rare. These are gold.

Car Wrecks of No Man's Land

Car Wrecks of No Man's Land

Thousands of cars and, weirdly, television sets litter the desert here. It’s as if civilisation had been destroyed from one day to the next and the desert had taken over. Add to this the claimed danger to your life from those tens of thousands of landmines. Scam artists warmed me as I began my walk. "It’s dangerous, you'll need a guide" they told me. "There are mines." Some even yelled "BOOM!!" after me. But trust me on this one. It’s a scam, nothing more. Sure, a few of the cars looked like they’d been blown up, but most had been abandoned here for one reason or another. But these tracks are well worn and even though it, at times, can be difficult to figure out which track that is the most direct, all lead between those same two border posts. Stick to the tracks, and there’s no danger what-so-ever.

Stay on the.. road...

Stay on the.. road...

Though it is still very, very cool to brave this walk alone if you ask me… It can surely be turned into a good story. But for once, I am not in a bragging mood.

What shouldn’t be done, is what the Germans did. They drove off the tracks. Not just a little. A few kilometres off the tracks. Either they didn’t know about the mines or they didn’t care. Regardless, their fates could easily have been different – something that’s only make their story even more tragic.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:11 Archived in Western Sahara Tagged desert travel cars border_crossing border mines dangerous landmines danger mauritania western_sahara no_mans_land Comments (0)

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