A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about hardship

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.

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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)

Do I Want to go Home?

Doubt is a natural part of travel - well, of life, really... And having been on the road for a while I might have had enough.

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Taking a break

Taking a break

Am I done? Having used more than a week not travelling, I can’t figure out if I want to go back on the road or not. The comfortable expat life is getting to me. The simple fact that I’ve stopped travelling for a while have made me wonder if it might be time to end this trip for good and go home.

Bumping around in one of the wettest regions of the world – in the rainy season – doesn’t help either. Nothing, me included, really dry down here. Both the inside of my backpack and one of my wallets are becoming mouldy. Mould! Heavy showers keep everything wet, and the humidity here keeps me wet unless there are 30 minutes of the sunshine that can dry me off before the next shower. By now I can barely enter a dry room without making everything in it damp by my mere presence.

In Central Asia

In Central Asia

I have also just passed six months on the road. The longest I’ve been out on previous trips was seven months when I went to Central Asia in 2013. Back then, my return date was set in stone as I had to go back to my studies. I remember thinking a few times during the latter part of that trip that I was ready to go home. Having set a date for my return somehow helped keep those thoughts in check.

Now, I have no set date. Nothing that I absolutely need to go back to on a given date. That makes it difficult to see an end to the travelling life. Sure, I’m probably going to run out of money during the first three months of 2017… maybe, but so far I’ve been spending less than expected.

Summit of Mount Bintumani

Summit of Mount Bintumani

Then again. Nothing stops me from going home either. Or going somewhere else, where it’s easier to travel. Hell, I could just jump on a flight to Southeast Asia, if I wanted to. Nothing, except the profound feeling of failure I would feel if I cut this trip short, stops me.
But I’ve decided that it’s probably just a matter of feeling a bit homesick. Haven gotten out of the travel routine, I’ve also lost all those beautiful experiences that come with travelling. I’m going to head out of Freetown, climb the biggest mountain between Morocco and Cameroon (which is going to be a five-day round-trip, at least) and then re-evaluate.

To pull a little bit in the other direction, I’m also going to begin to apply for jobs. After all, I did just finish a master’s in Global Studies before I started this trip. In that way, if I should receive some fantastic opportunity to start a career somewhere exciting it would give me a valid reason for cutting this adventure short.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 15:07 Archived in Sierra Leone Tagged travel country travelling tired west_africa comfort sierra_leone expat_life living_standards hardship_ Comments (0)

Expatriate Life

Changing lifestyle for a while...

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It’s unlikely that you will enter Sierra Leone by road. It bears the dubious distinction of being bordered by arguably the only two West African countries that are in a worse state – Guinea and Liberia.

Freetown

Freetown

Thanks for nothing, Bradt Guides.

I have made my way from Conakry in Guinea to Freetown in Sierra Leone. Almost surprisingly, I’ve only been asked for a bribe once. Unfortunately, that was the guy stamping me into Sierra Leone. The fact that I didn’t want to pay him then resulted in him only allowing me to stay in the country for nine days. I’ll have to go to the immigration office in Freetown and buy an extension of my stay, as he told me. Luckily, he was pretty sloppy when he wrote the date into my passport, and I’ve been able to rewrite the date afterwards, granting myself another extra ten days.

A real house(!)

A real house(!)

To my surprise, after the last few days, I’m beginning to realise that nineteen days might not be enough here. For the last week, I’ve been couchsurfing with a German expat and lived the life of the expatriate – a jobless expat, but nonetheless an expat.

To the ones who need clarification, are expatriates – expats for short – defined as someone who is stationed abroad. Think of aid workers, diplomats, private institution teachers and the like. Stationing people abroad is usually no cheap enterprise and whether we’re talking about North Americans, Europeans or Chinese in Africa (or Africans in Europe). The paychecks tend to be larger than they would otherwise be in the expat’s country of origin. Perks like a paid house or car is also often part of expat luxury.

Hardship Country?

Hardship Country?

Whenever there’s a significant drop in living standards, say from a European to an African country, the paycheck goes up further. Every international organisation divides countries into “hardship” categories based on how dangerous, undeveloped, etc. the country is.
Sierra Leone is such a country. Frankly, most of the places I travel are considered “hardship countries”. And more frankly, there’s a lot more difficulty involved in budget travelling than being stationed somewhere, with excellent perks and top salary. Long time travelling – especially in Africa – is not a particularly comfortable lifestyle, and having just reached six months on the road, I needed a break. A pause from the cheap, semi-dirty rooms. A break from eating rice for 90 per cent of my meals. A break from crowded transportation. And a break from that self-imposed ambitious of not wasting time as many travellers have.

Travel Living Standards

Travel Living Standards

I think I need to elaborate on the unwillingness to waste time. Travelling somewhere new, just to sit and do nothing is not why we travel. It’s not a vacation. It’s, for me, a year of seeing a region of the world I don’t know much about. Not exploring it would be a waste of time. Also, having a limited time – or rather having a limited wallet – means that I have a rough idea about how long time I can spend in each country in other to get all the way to Nigeria. Those plans go out the window often but nonetheless do I have to keep a little bit track of thinks.
Those factors create pressure. At least in my mind. I need to get everything I want to do done so that I can move on. During that without wasting too much time is a very demanding way of travelling, and can only be done for so long before any traveller wears him/herself out. Arriving in Freetown, I’ve just about worn myself out during the past six months.

Lobster Lunch

Lobster Lunch

Since my host is living in a rather nice three-bedroom house, I’ve spend a lot of time – a lot of days actually – taking a vacation from all the travelling. To be honest, I’ve spend more time on the couch than anywhere else. We have ordered pizza and beers three days in a row for dinner and used the evenings to watch football.
I even burned money on joining my host and two other aid workers on an extended weekend in a small guesthouse on the exotically named Banana Islands. Lying in a hammock all day, enjoying gorgeous beaches and eating lobster at $10 apiece. We even went spear fishing. We also joked a lot about the fact that Sierra Leone is a “hardship country.”

Expatriate Guide

Expatriate Guide

However, in other aspects of life, it surely is. It took my host six months to get running water installed. Something that just happened. My first week here he only had bucket showers. My computer didn’t survive the trip between Conakry and Freetown either; trying to fix it seems almost impossible to do down here. I’ve instead bought a used tablet with an add-on keyboard. Buying electronics down here costs about the double of what it would do in Scandinavia – and this used tablet have set me back about the same as a new one would have done back home.
So there are definitely reasons as to why West Africa, in general, is considered “hardship” for expats too. To recover from this, and to see if it will be at all possible to recover what’s on my old hard drive, I think I’ll have to spend a few more days on the couch…

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Posted by askgudmundsen 07:32 Archived in Sierra Leone Tagged travel country travelling west_africa comfort sierra_leone expat_life living_standards banana_islands hardship_ Comments (0)

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