After our recent adventures crossing remote / non existent borders (see: https://roadless-travel.com/2019/07/09/guinea-bissau-part-1-an-adventurous-border-crossing/) we were looking forward to 300km of good tarmac road and a nice straightforward run from Conakry to Freetown.
The day before we were due to leave our friend Bintou had invited us to visit her Grandmother’s village. Aware that we were anxious about going too far off route she reassured us that the village was right next to the Sierra Leone border. It sounded ideal, free accommodation, a chance to meet her family and all without needing to put in any extra kilometres. Unfortunately none of us thought to check which border Bintou was referring to. It was not until we were an hour outside of Conakry, by which time phone calls had been made, dinner was being prepared and it was far too late to back out, that we realised we were in fact heading towards the remote north east of the country. When we mentioned the misunderstanding to Bintou she was was once again very reassuring, there was definitely an official border this way, though admittedly the last time she visited it had been closed because of bandits…
We headed North towards the town of Kindia, from where it was a further 63 kilometres along a bumpy and pot holed track to Madina Oula where Bintou’s grandmother lived. 20 kilometres outside the village we hit the first of what would be many police checks that night. The officer told us in no uncertain terms that we could not cross without official permission, which we apparently should have obtained back in Kindia. I immediately went on the charm offensive but realised I may have over done it a bit when he brought out his mobile phone and began showing me pictures of his family, before asking me to take his son back to London. The boy could not have been more than 8 years old and was clearly very loved, it was heartbreaking to think that his father would be willing to let him go with a complete stranger in the hope he would have a better life. In the end I managed to drop into the conversation that I was an immigration lawyer and made some vague noises about perhaps being able to help one day in the future, I felt a bit guilty when his felt lit up and he eagerly pressed a piece of paper with his Whatsapp details, phone number and email address into my hand, but the rope was lowered and were waved through the checkpoint without any further mention of needing official permission.
By the time we reached the village it was gone 11pm. Leon and I were exhausted, but neither of us could match Jim’s bleak mood. Despite having only one passenger seat in the front (the others had been removed to make space for a fridge and a bed), in true Guinean style Bintou, her sister and her cousin had all managed to squeeze into Jim’s Subaru Forester, Bintou and her sister somehow sharing the front seat (making changing gear somewhat challenging) and with Musa crammed into the back. The situation was not helped by the fact that Bintou has a phobia of cats meaning that every so often she would let out an ear splitting shriek and try and climb into Jim’s lap as Blanco pawed at her through the gap in the headrest. An extremely close call when an 8 year old girl had run out into the road had left Jim shaken and the police officer who fined him for ‘unsecured luggage’ (ignoring the two ladies in the front seat, the passenger perched on an upturned bucket in the back, and the fact that no one was wearing seatbelts) was it seemed the final straw.
Bintou’s grandmother lived in a faded yellow concrete house on the outskirts of the village. Although it was late when we arrived it seemed most of the village had turned out to meet us. Once the introductions were over, Bintou’s aunty drew a bucket of water from the well and Bintou and I were led around the back of the house to wash. Afterwards we sat on straw mats outside and ate piles of fresh mango and a meal of fish and rice. Bintou’s family offered us their bedroom but it was so hot we were quite content to sleep on the matts outside and fell asleep looking up at the stars. The following day, Bintou, Musa and it seemed most of the kids from the village took us on a tour of the surrounding area.
Before we left the village Bintou’s grandmother presented us with a live chicken. It was an extremely kind gesture and we did not want to offend anyone by refusing, even though in all honesty none of us relished the idea of killing a chicken and had no idea what we would do with it. In the end we cleared a space for it in the car, gave it some rice to eat and tied a cord around one of its legs to prevent it from going to far. There was a bit of a scene when Jim tried to ‘introduce’ the chicken to Blanco but in the end they seemed to agree a cautious truce, with both sticking to their respective areas within the car. With that, our increasingly absurd band of merry travellers set off for the border, Leon and I in front, with Jim, the kitten and the chicken bringing up the rear.
There was no immigration office at the actual border and so we stopped at the police station to get our passports and carnet stamped. Bintou, her aunt and Musa insisted on coming with us as there was apparently a ‘permit’ we needed for using the border and they were anxious that we were not overcharged for it. It was a strange situation, we were sure we did not need to pay for a permit as we already had a visa, they (and the police officer) were sure that we did. We refused and settled in to play the waiting game, but Bintou and her aunt (who were clearly not familiar with the waiting game) were becoming increasingly anxious that we were going to get into serious trouble with the police. After 15 minutes or so the police officer capitulated and we were allowed to go without paying anything, much to the surprise of the others. It was a reminder that for all the whinging tourists do about corruption in Africa, being foreign and (generally) white means we are actually in a privileged position and can often avoid paying for things local people simply cannot.
After a second round of goodbyes we finally left. The border on the Guinean side was a piece of rope with carrier bags tied along it and a few bored looking officials. We crossed without any issues. Before leaving we had enquired about the condition of the road on the Sierra Leone side, ‘don’t worry’ Musa had reassured us, ‘the road there is all machined.’ I don’t know why we had expected that the sandy potholed track on the Guinea side would be replaced by tarmac as soon as we entered Sierra Leone, but we were quickly disabused on this notion. In fact, as Jim later observed, if you closed your eyes and stuck a pin in the map, it would be difficult to pick a spot in Sierra Leone which was further away from a main road.
Things got worse when we stopped at the town of Sainya to ask the military directions. The main ferry at Kabba had broken down more than 2 weeks ago, the only other way around was to take a tiny trail through the jungle to Samaia where they assured us there would be another ferry. We asked what the road was like and they shook their heads, the bike would probably make it they thought, but they weren’t sure Jim’s Subaru had enough ground clearance. We couldn’t find Samaia on the map, but the military told us we should take a left after the ominously named ‘Kill Me Hill’ and we would find the right route.
The first part of the road was filled with puddles that looked like small lakes. After crossing a rickety wooden bridge we found Kill Me Hill, an incredibly steep rocky track, with a hairpin bend around the halfway point. There were a few tense moments when it seemed like Jim wouldn’t make it but in the end we got there. Just before the turnoff we stopped to enquire about the condition of the road ahead. We ask this question several times a day and the inevitable answer (regardless of conditions) is ‘it’s fine.’ Today for the first time, the guy we had stopped paused, ‘the road?’ he was clearly grasping for the right words, he broke into a smile as the perfect adjective came to him…’ahhh…the road is catastrophic!’
We quickly understood what he meant. The road was one big deep muddy and waterlogged trench and we were getting nowhere quickly. Exhausted we found a small clearing away from the road set up camp for the night. Blanco it turned out loved the jungle and had a great time exploring. The chicken (who we had decided not to name for fear of getting too attached) had at some point during the journey lain an egg in Jim’s car. At least if we got stuck we wouldn’t starve to death! After a quick dinner of tuna and pasta, we fell asleep listening to the sounds of the jungle.
The following morning we made an early start, we worked out that we had come just 31km the day before. We had a further 35km of terrible road to go until we reached the ferry, from there it was another 130km to the nearest town of Makeni. Leon had made it vey clear that failing to reach Makeni was not an option. It was the Champions legal final that night and he is a Liverpool fan!
It was slow going, but we were in good spirits, enjoying the specular scenery and challenging but fun riding. We hit our first military checkpoint around 11am. The officers were sat around drinking ‘Beta Cola’ a strong and sickly sweet alcoholic drink and were already drunk. At first they were reluctant to let us pass but by the time we left we were all great friends; they even changed some money for us at a decent rate.
At the second checkpoint of the day they were not so friendly; the grumpy looking officer looked us up and down before informing us solemnly that we had broken the law and he was going to have to detain us: ‘Why?’ ‘Because the law says that no one is allowed to travel before 12pm on the first Saturday.’ ‘Why??’ ‘Because they should stay home and clean!’
Trying my best not to laugh, I told him that I was a lawyer and one thing I know that there is an exception to every law. It just so happened that we were on a very important mission. The officer was still trying his best to look stern but I could tell his interest was piqued so I asked him if he wanted to know what our mission was? He nodded. ‘We are on a mission to get my husband here to Makeni in time to watch the Liverpool match, you see he is a Liverpool fan.’ This time the officer laughed; he was it transpired also a Liverpool fan. We could tell he was starting to waver when Leon took out my phone and showed him the pictures we had taken at the earlier checkpoint, ‘look we had such a good time with all the other military officers, surely you don’t want to be the one to give us a bad impression?’ The threat of being outdone by his colleagues finally did it and he let us through with handshakes and friendly pat on the back and wishes of good luck, our previous crimes seemingly forgotten about.
Finally we made it to the ferry! The military had told us the ferry was ‘manpowered’ but what we didn’t realise was this meant the guy was going to strip down to his underpants jump in the river and push it across.
On the other side a red dirt road unfurled in front of us like a ribbon, surrounded on either side by lush green vegetation. We had made it through the mud! It felt like no time at all before we reached tarmac and the final kilometres to Makeni flew by. We reached Makeni, exhausted but victorious and most importantly in time for the match! We decided to stay in the university and watch the game in the student bar. It turned out to be a lot of fun, the bar was packed full and there was a great atmosphere. Liverpool of course won much to Leon’s delight and to my disappointment (although I’m not a football fan per se I used to work opposite White Heart Lane and do love an underdog). After the match the tables and chairs were cleared away to make room for a dance floor and we stayed up late, drinking, making new friends and (in my case at least) utterly failing to master African dancing.