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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Guinea, Part 1 and Liberia

Guinea, Part 1

Day 1 – 10/4/12

The bridge that connects Ivory Coast and Guinea is broken. So, we had to ford a river to enter Guinea.

The border formalities were completed professionally, no hint of a bribe. The officers there were delighted that tourists were visiting – and this was common at all the road blocks. The customs formalities were completed at Nzoo, ~ 9 km from the border. But before that we came to a river where the bridge was being worked on and there was a large truck stuck in the major ford. We had noticed a number of trucks stopped ~ 500 m before the river, with the drivers having a sleep. At this point you get that “oh shit” feeling. We did not have a visa to return to Ivory Coast and this truck was firmly stuck. Then, Ray noticed a track to the side. The local chaps had set up a mini business. After a bit of a chat, we can use the small crossing for a small present. Ray establishes the rules, crossing 1st, present 2nd and this is agreed. Ray then walks the track. The river crossing is fast flowing, but only ~ 1ft deep. However the exit bank is very, very steep. We drive the approach in 1st gear, low range and try to ford the stream – Ray driving. The 1st attempt is unsuccessful. We cannot get up the exit. We reverse and try again, same result. Avril says; “you need a bigger run up” (translation; you are being a girl, stop messing about and go hard at it!). Following instructions, we make the exit on the 3rd attempt. We then pay; we start with GF 10,000 (~ $ 1.40), but the looks of disapproval show this is not enough. We add another GF 10,000 and every one is happy.

The road after the border is poor for ~ 5 km, but then improves to an OK gravel standard. From Lola on the road is high standard tar.

The drive is delightful, small hills and in the distance, mountains. In places there are grand stands of rain forest. We are glad we made the decision to take this route.

We stopped for the night at the Hotel Rougui, which the Rough Guide says is the up-market hotel in town. Bucket shower, no loo paper (the reason this is a Muslim area???) but we have our own. The folks are very nice and we BBQ some pork (from Ghana) and have a nice dinner.

Ray driving. 265 km. 8 hrs N  080 31’ 27.8’’ W 0090 28’ 05.8’’

Day 2 – 11/4/12

De ja vu, all over again. The day started relatively OK. Ray got boiled eggs in a baguette for breakfast and we were on our way. The road to Liberia was clearly marked. We had been assured many times that this road was “good” and in fact the road all the way to Monrovia was “flat”/”good”.

The road in Guinea is not good and we went slowly along, still positive. ~ 15 km outside Macenta we reached the 1st road block. After a bit of chatter, it turns out that we were meant to get the carnet stamped in Macenta. The customs folks offered to come back and show us the way, but did not want to sit on the roof rack, also we did not want to drive back, so Ray got on a motor bike with the senior customs bloke driving. It turned out the bike does not have a good clutch and when it stalls the customs bloke grabs the nearest, very scrawny, kid to give us a push start. Still, we made it to town. The customs office is very hard to find, so it is just as well we had an official showing the way. The carnet was signed very quickly. Then we had to look for fuel. But there was none in Macenta!! So, we rode ~ 10 km out of town to get fuel. As Ray is a tourist, we went to the front of the queue – and everyone thoght this was proper (wonder how this would go down in a western country?). So far so good. Then we headed back to the roadblock and the car. But, ~ 2/3rds of the way to the car, the bike chain snapped. Bugger. Ray paid for the chain to be fixed (they were doing us a favour). The customs bloke stopped another bike coming past and asked the passenger to wait whilst the rider took Ray to the car, he is in a rush and so refused. The customs bloke gave him a serve! Then he stopped another bike who took Ray to the car. The officials at the car were very appreciative that we had paid to have the bike fixed.

Meanwhile, Avril formed an ad hoc Save the Kids branch. She had taken some bread and fruit and divided it up to feed the kids. One of the mums sat the kids down and the had a bit of a feed.

The road to the border was very bad. We passed through another roadblock where all the vehicle papers were checked and an officer asked for some money, but the issue was not pushed. At the border the police stamped our passports.


 Day 1 – 11/4/12

TIA!!! The drive to the Liberia post was bad, but we made reasonable progress and felt like pioneers and a bit pleased with ourselves. Then, along came an ancient small sedan, loaded to a much greater degree than us. It made us feel good that the vehicle had made it, but it put our efforts into perspective.

At the Liberian post they insisted that Avril also came into the office. Then the officers claimed that, as we came from Guinea, we needed to have a Liberian visa issued in Guinea! This went on for ~ 30 min, then one of the immigration officers rang his boss. Yes, a Liberian visa issued in Accra is OK. Where is Forrest when you need someone clever?

Then we went to the customs office, they took down the particulars of the vehicle and for the 2nd time in Africa and the 1st time since entering Angola from Namibia, a vehicle inspection was carried out. All of this took time. But we had been assured that the road to Monrovia was good, so we were not too worried. They did not have the customs stamp at this office (or one suspects the authority to stamp anything) so we needed to take a customs officer, on our roof rack, and drive ~ 20 km out of our way to another post. The senior man here was very nice and it took some time to realise that he did not have the stamp. His boss had the stamp. The boss was away on some personal business, but will be back “soon”. So 45 min later, the boss showed up, the stamp was unlocked and the carnet stamped. But, they assured us maximum 6 hours to Monrovia.

We stopped in Voinjama to get a sim card. The company is Lonestar, but as we inspected the documents, we saw it was really MTN, and we got that sinking feeling. We departed on our journey and sure enough, the phone did not work. You needed to register the SIM, which includes having photo taken. Later that night, MTN redeemed themselves; a registration agent came to our hotel and registered the card.

We were really looking forward to the flat road from Voinjama. We know you have guessed by now, the road was very bad. Average speed was ~ 25 – 30 km/hr and even at these speeds the suspension got a good work over.

Immediately we saw that Liberia is UN/NGO heaven. They seemed to comprise most of the road traffic and one suspects a good percentage of the GNP (one wonders what will happen to the economy if they ever leave. Maybe another war so they come back and get the economy going again?). Given their superior status in the country, the UN/NGO drivers are quite aggressive. A UN truck came up behind us and blasted their mega horn. Trying to get past. Yeah, they wanted to go ~ 300 m past us to turn into their camp! Later a huge Red Cross vehicle did the same thing, right up on our tail, horn blasting. We pulled over to let them past. Then they slowed so that we had to eat their dust, so we slowed more. This went on for a bit, so we passed the Red Cross truck, again we were subjected to the tail-gating and mega horn blasting. We reached a road block, Ray, fed up with the driving, decided to have a wee chat to the NGO driver. We also let the police know they are driving dangerously. This seemed to do the trick and they backed off.

Another aspect of the trip was the road blocks. These are generally run by the immigration service. At these points they insisted on copying down our passport  details; they would not take a copy and let us go on.

We realised that, keeping to our rule of no night driving, we were not going to make Monrovia., so we took a room at the Crystal Hotel in Gbarnga. They did not have a restaurant, so for only maybe the 2nd time on the trip we had a cold snack in our room – not too bad – bread, cheese, pate, a bit of salad and fruit.  But, the hotel had TV, so we got to watch some sport.

On any other day, this would have been a very pleasant drive. We had unfortunately given our selves an objective based on the assurances that the road was good. We probably should have chilled out, enjoyed the scenery (nice green vegetation and some mountains in the distance) and camped at a village on the way.

Avril driving. 246 km. 12 hrs N  0070 00’ 24.6’’ W 0090 29’ 04.8’’

Day 2 –12/4/12

Luxury.  We had been in touch with James Castiau from BHPBilliton and he had forewarned us about the road conditions on the road from Gbarnga to Monrovia. BHPB take 4 hours for this < 200 km. We took ~ this time for the journey. The road was badly potholed with some impressive, deep potholes (no, not as bad as Angola!). Along the way we saw 2 vehicles with their front axles broken and wheels twisted at tortured angles.

The immigration service again stopped us at a number of points. They were not impressed when we pointed out that we had been in Liberia < 24 hrs and that ~ 20% of our time had been taken up by immigration stops. Nor were they impressed when we pointed out that only white people were being stopped!

After arriving in Monrovia, we dropped into the Senegal Embassy near the domestic airport but the consulate is down town (the embassy is actually the honorary consul’s house). So, we quickly drove down town and the Consul issued the visa on the spot. A very nice man, who looked after us, took Ray to change some money and made sure we felt comfortable. On the way out of town we were stopped by a traffic cop, wearing a Canadian baseball hat. Ray immediately demanded to know who he was; he then showed his very big & obvious police tag. Mmm. Then we had a very interesting exchange, us saying we were pretty annoyed with the continual stopping at checkpoints and the copper lecturing us on Liberian traffic laws. So backwards and forwards until we all settled down, had a bit of a natter, exchanged phone # and email and ended up best of mates!

We had lunch at an Indian restaurant. Our 1st Indian since Australia.  

The friendly folks at BHPB had invited us to stay at their compound. For them this is their home away from home and probably the minimum standard to keep young professionals happy. For us it was luxury - hot showers, internet that works, nice food and great company.

We spent the evening having a natter to the folks in the compound and were probably the last ones to go to bed.

Avril driving. 224 km. 4.5 hrs N  060 15’ 33.1’’ W 0100 42’ 51.0’’

Day 3 – 13/4/12

A day of chores and relaxation – Avril managed to check out all 14 sports’ channels!  We were able to download the travel guides from Amazon and put them onto Avril’s Kindle. So we are up and running again.

Day 4 – 14/4/12

Another day of catching up on chores e.g. getting our pictures backed up onto a hard drive. We took another drive into Monrovia. It seems to be a caricature of a seedy, run down 1950s banana republic city, ideal for a movie set. However, the traffic flows quite well.

We stopped off at an expatriate style supermarket and were shocked at how high the prices were. Seems like the UN & NGOs have lots of money to splash around.

We filled up with Diesel (same as Gasoil!) and it was quoted at US$ 4.75/gal. We do not know if this is a US gal or Imperial and whether or not this is a good price.

Day 5 – 15/4/12

For the hard working BHPB folks, every 2nd Saturday is BBQ night (They get 1 day off a fortnight). The evening was fantastic, chatting to the folks based in Liberia in a very relaxed social environment.

After a bit of breakfast, we set off for the border. The road is high standard tar and we made good progress. In our eagerness to pass quickly through an immigration road block on the tail of a local car, we missed the only turn and the mega sign indicating the way we should have gone! 12 km down the road, we realised our mistake and doubled back.

Even with the diversion we are at the border in < 3 hrs.

Immigration and customs were completed with no effort. No hint of a bribe. Everyone was helpful.

Liberia Summary

We obviously had a great time with the BHPB folks. A very big thanks to Dave and all the crew. We are indebted to James for making this happen. The R&R was fantastic and the BHPB people super friendly and very helpful.

The positive of Liberia is the positive security environment.

However, we really did not have a great time outside the BHPB compound. The continual road blocks and administrative requirements were a real drag. The roads from the north into Monrovia were bad. The prices were high.

1 comment:

  1. Hi folks, great to read about your adventure! How would the road from Macenta to Voinjama have been for a larger vehicle than yours? Any suspect bridges? I'm thinking of taking that road with a truck (16 tonne rigid) as an alternative to Nzerekore to Ganta, which I've used before. I've heard the Voinjama to Gbarnga section is much improved these days, but would be interested in your opinion of how the Macenta to Voinjama section would be with a larger vehicle. Thanks.