A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about transportation

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)

Village Jumping in the Mangrove Forests

Moving slowly, village by village, with whatever transportation that becomes available.

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The fishermen

The fishermen

As the fishers sailed closer to the beach, they yelled for my attention. One of them jumped off the pirogue, into the shallow waters of the delta, and ran towards me the best he could despite being knee-deep in water. While Senegal, and in particular, the Saloum Delta, is a welcoming place this greeting was enthusiastic beyond the norm. A short chat later excited that I was Danish, he invited me closer to the boat to show me that one of his crew-mates was wearing a second-hand t-shirt that spelt COPENHAGEN with large letters underneath a Dannebrog – the Danish flag. I’m not nationalistic whatsoever, but the coincident was indeed funny. In the middle of a little-visited delta on the Senegalese coast a Dane, stuck on a small island, runs into a fisherman wearing a shirt spelling out his hometown. (Let’s just forget the fact that the t-shirt was Carlsberg merchandise for the time being).

Sailing out of the Delta

Sailing out of the Delta

This encounter got me a ride off the island, on which I would otherwise have been stuck for an extra day as I had – apparently – missed the only public pirogue of the day. A girl from Dakar, who was on the island to sell toiletries, and in the same situation as me, quickly added herself to the party and thus were we two people who manage to get off the island due to a very random Danish connection. The truth is that these fishermen would probably have offered me a ride anyway – but now it suddenly came for free.

Delta village

Delta village

The whole reason for me being stuck on an island in a Senegalese delta you ask? Besides that, I’m travelling, and that tend to get me automatically stuck in weird situations in odd places? Well, this time, I’m village jumping through the UNESCO-recognised Sine-Saloum Delta. To the ones not familiar with the term ‘village-jumping’ it’s usually used when travelling through areas without any long-distance transportation, proper infrastructure and large cities or towns. Here in a delta that consists of three major rivers, more than 200 islands and islets, and just 19 villages transportation are naturally limited. The next question usually follows: What am I doing here? If the beauty of drifting down a river, through mangrove forests, to the slow rhythms of ordinary African village life is lost on you, I don’t think I’m going to be able to explain it. Travelling in Africa can’t get much better than this – unless we’re attacked by a wild animal, that is. Now that would be a story to write home about.

Transport by public pirogue

Transport by public pirogue

Getting to the Delta was simply a matter of finding a car driving to the end of the road. Literally. The Senegalese coast before the delta ends in a kind of spit, a long narrow peninsula. Twenty years ago, the peninsula was about 50 km longer, but the ocean broke through it, thus ending the road very abruptly. From the village where the road ends, there’s a public pirogue to the village on the nearest island. Voilà, the jumping has begun. A pirogue is basically an over-sized canoe. About twenty metres long, a meter and a half wide, and – when fully loaded – only twenty centimetres above the water’s surface. Put a small outboard motor on it, and the locals have a boat that they will brave the open ocean in. I wouldn’t, and I’m happy we’re sticking to the slow moving waters between the green mangrove forests.

Delta du Saloum

Delta du Saloum

Having arrived at the island is was simply a matter of jumping overboard and walk the last few metres onto the beach. Plenty of villages here have community run campartments, usually consisting of a few one-room bungalows in a courtyard. So sleeping arrangements are easily found. Not in a hurry, and with a campartment right on the beach, it would almost be sacrilege not to stay put for the night. Having spent the night, I needed to cross the island to get to the next village. With no cars on the island, it was simply a matter of walking the 12 km. This distance equals the 12 kgs of my backpack and is a pretty proper distance of a day’s walk in the loose sand under Africa’s sun, fully packed.

Foot brigde

Foot brigde

For the first 10 km, the only encounter was a flock of long-horned cows walking alone through the sand. The disappeared between the trees as suddenly as they have appeared. They cared nothing for the sweating traveller, who was standing in their way. That changed for the better when I was overtaken by a local guy on a motocross bike, who promptly stopped to offer me a ride the last few kilometres. That got me to the end of the island were, to my surprise, there was a small footbridge to the next island. On that island was another campartment and I didn’t have to spend a night in my tent as I had originally planned.

Children swimming

Children swimming

This eventually brings us to the friendly fishermen from the beginning who sailed me back to the mainland. That might sound promising, but I still needed to get out of the mangrove forest. The girl from Dakar (remember her?), was kind enough to show me the sandy lot that made up the garage from where transportation would bring me to the main road, 20-ish km away. Here were plenty of cars. However, all was bombed out wrecks, and it became apparent very quickly that those cars were going nowhere. What there was instead was a bombed out minibus, which apparently had been judged roadworthy enough to take on the row of potholes that is called a road around here. What was also clear was that the minibus wasn’t going anywhere soon. It was almost empty, and while these things have seats for 18 people they easily fit 35-40. At least if one asks the driver. Further, all the luggage was still standing in the sand beside the bus. This is another indicator that the vehicle isn’t leaving soon.

Transport by donkey cart

Transport by donkey cart

So why not go local. Instead, of waiting most of the day for the bus to leave, I decided to hire once of the donkey carts to take me to the road. It’s slow, more expensive than the bus, and slightly less comfortable. But the expressions and the smiles on people we passed’s faces was worth it all. The cart also took all day, but we only got overtaken by the bus half an hour before we reached the road – which is enough for me to call it a win.

From the main road I began making my way inland, to some very traditional villages (think straw huts, etc.), but I’ll get back to that in a few days.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 02:04 Archived in Senegal Tagged travel transportation travelling mangrove delta pirogue west_africa senegal delta_du_saloum sine-saloum village_jumping Comments (0)

The Case Against Flying

Because shooting through the air in a metal case is boring and only add cultural shock to your adventure.

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I think that I’ve mentioned it a few times already: I consider flying as cheating. So, since I’ve just returned to the African mainland – by plane – after a few weeks on Cape Verde, I should probably explain myself. It’s not that I don’t like the act of flying or is afraid of it; I rather like it. But when it comes to travelling I find it... aesthetically and essentially (for lack of better words) wrong.

Travelling is, to me, essentially a matter of experiences. Whether these are cultural, historical, natural or something entirely else. Flights are not. Flying is the complete opposite. It’s humanity’s most efficient mean of transportation. Planes are inherently time machines, moving people in time and space. The time travel is most evident when we’re flying across time zones.

Cultural Adjustment Curve

Cultural Adjustment Curve

That is, however, not why I dislike flying. (I really want a real time machine!). It’s the travel in space that I mind. Step into that metal cylinder we call a plane in one part of the world, a few hours later we step out somewhere completely different. The problem is that the world doesn’t work like that. The stark difference we feel when flying from, say, Europe or North America to Africa or Asia isn’t real. Sure, it’s real for those people taking the flight, and many of them will probably experience what we call ‘cultural shock’ once they arrive. Simply because the transformation in space is so sudden that it takes some time to get adapt to.

Flamingo in Andalusia

Flamingo in Andalusia

This experience of cultural shock is easily avoided by not flying. Things on the ground change gradually. Consider my trip. Had I just flow from Copenhagen to Dakar (where I am now) it would have been a significant change. Instead, I’ve passed through a number of ‘cultural belts’. The first being Andalusia in Southern Spain. It’s Spanish and European, but having historically also been part of Islamic empires it probably has more in common with Morocco than with (secular, Scandinavian) Denmark. Another transition happened as I moved from to the very conservative and Middle Eastern-ish Mauritania or more open-minded and Sub-Saharan Senegal. Both Islamic countries, the area around the Senegal River, which marks the border, is less conservative than most of the rest of Mauritania on the northern side, but more conservative than the rest of Senegal on the southern. Travelling over land has eased transformation from Scandinavia to Africa in a way that would be impossible by flying.

Overland Travel

Overland Travel

Cultural Shock is basically a lack of understanding about how a given culture works and how it is different from the one you're used to. People and cultures are different too. But travelling over land gives a distinct feeling for where people and cultures are different and where they aren’t. It provides a better understand of who you’re visiting. By experiencing the transformations from Northern to Southern Europe, from southern Europe to North Africa and from North Africa to Sub-Saharan West Africa I have gotten a much better understanding of how people across these regions are similar and different.

Walk if you have to

Walk if you have to

However you go about your non-flying (driving, biking, taking the train, hitch, sail or purchasing a donkey cart) it will give you many more experiences, make you infinitely richer on adventures and be a lot more fun than just flying. As flying is essentially a somewhat tedious affair (unless you’re afraid of it, and they you should avoid it anyway).

Fine, if you’re crossing oceans, are in a hurry (say, on an extended weekend) or if your purpose is not to experience anything, but just to lazy about on a beach, go ahead. Jump on that plane. But the next time you’re taking a two-week vacation somewhere, snub the aeroplane, extend your vacation to three weeks and use that extra week on getting to and from your destinations properly, visiting the fascinating towns, sights and people between your home and wherever you’re going! Especially, if you’re travelling within Europe where distances are incredibly short.

Fogo Island (Aldo Bien, Wiki Commons)

Fogo Island (Aldo Bien, Wiki Commons)

The biggest problem these days are that aeroplane tickets are so damn cheap. Ignore that. Travelling shouldn’t be about saving money. Go the adventures route instead! If you have any sense of adventurous or travelling spirit, it’ll thank you for it (and so will the environment).

So why did I fly to Cape Verde then? It simply was the only mean of transportation. There aren’t any ships from the African mainland. Container ships travel directly there directly from Europe and the private yachts set sail almost exclusively from the Canaries. If I wanted to visit the Verdes, flying was – unfortunately – my only option.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 06:45 Archived in Cape Verde Tagged flying culture no north africa transportation europe andalusia travelling experience non cape_verde cultural_shock Comments (0)

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