Before embarking on this trip I had spent many painful hours charting the average rainfall per month and likely duration of the wet season in all of the countries we would be crossing and I had reached one main conclusion. In order to avoid being in the wettest country in West Africa at the wettest time of year, we MUST be through Liberia before the start of June. But like most best laid plans, this one didn’t exactly pan out and we somehow ended up entering Liberia on 26th of June, right slap bang in the middle of the worst part of rainy season.
With an average rainfall of almost 973 mm and an average hotel price of over 100 USD per night, Liberia in June at least, is not exactly a dream budget tourist destination. To give you an idea of what 973 mm of rain in one month looks like, it is only slightly less than the UK gets in an entire year! Added to this was the fact that within hours of crossing the border Jim had come down with Malaria. ‘Coming down’ with Malaria is a bit like being hit by a freight train, one minute you are sat drinking a beer, feeling fine other than a slight headache, the next minute you can barely stand and have a temperature of 41 degrees. The one upshot of my (totally unwarranted) trip the the health clinic was that we were equipped with instant malaria tests and emergency medication which did until we got Jim to the hospital the following day. The nurse when she found out that this was Jim’s first encounter with Malaria wasn’t exactly sympathetic, laughing and exclaiming in her sing song voice ‘Oh Ho!! it’s gonna hit you haaaa-aaaaard!!’
In fact after 2 days of an intense fever and hacking cough, Jim was recovered enough to manage the drive to Robertsport beach. Robertsport would I’m sure have been a lovely spot, if it was not for the torrential rain and lack of anything other than potato leaf curry to eat. There is not per se anything wrong with potato leaf curry, but we had been eating it for lunch and dinner every day since arriving in Liberia. Proving that necessity really is the mother of invention Fabian and Leon managed to fashion some (pretty decent) burgers out of tinned ‘beef flavoured’ luncheon meat so we did at least have one night off.
From Robertsport we headed to Monrovia, we didn’t spend long in the city, leaving and arriving the same day and my lasting impression (besides the rain) was the huge amount of barbed wire which seemed to surround every building and top every wall. During our final few days in Liberia, the rain finally stopped and for the first time in weeks we had beautiful clear blue skies. We decided to make the most of the change in weather by taking a detour to visit Kpatawee waterfalls. The route was great fun, an undulating muddy track interspersed with deep puddles, cutting through vast palm plantations. As we neared the waterfalls the plantation ended and we had beautiful views of green and verdant hills and farmlands.
Around 500 meters from the waterfalls we were stopped by a man standing in the middle of the narrow track. He had obviously been working in the surrounding fields as his clothes were covered in mud and he was carrying a machete. He was in his 20’s or early 30’s and seemed to radiate a kind of manic aggression. “Where are you going?” he barked at us, eyes bulging. We told him we were heading to the waterfalls “Give me your ID!” he screamed. I won’t repeat Leon’s exact response, but the gist was that we had no idea who this guy was and we weren’t about to hand him our passports. At this point another guy arrived and told bulgy eyes to let us pass. We decided not to wait around for his response and sped off.
We soon reached the entrance to the waterfalls, a small, fenced enclosure which was completely deserted. We parked up and were just preparing to go and take a look at the falls when we spotted 3 guys, including bulgy eyes, heading purposefully along the track in our direction. All 3 were carrying machetes. We were suddenly, acutely aware of how remote this place was; Jim, Fabian and Heleanor were a good 20 minutes behind us and apart from the 3 machete wielding men heading our way there was not a single other person in sight. Bizarrely rather than panic or fear, a strange sense of calm washed over me. I remember thinking that in the worst case, they probably just intended to rob us and so we should limit what they could easily get their hands on and try and keep them talking until the others arrived. Estimating that that we had about 5 minutes before they reached us, we quickly shoved our camera and most of our cash deep within our panniers, leaving a small amount in our wallet as a decoy.
As soon as the guys entered the field we bounded over, shaking hands and pretending not to notice the machetes they were swinging, or the murderous stare being aimed in our direction by bulgy eyes. Not so subtly, we mentioned that we were waiting for our 3 friends who were 10 minutes away in their 4×4’s. At this, the men paused and began talking amongst themselves, we could tell they were discussing what to do next as we caught the occasional snippet, ‘they are 5’ and ‘10 minutes.’ One of the guys pulled up the rope at the entrance to the field, blocking our only exit, as he did this bulgy eyes advanced upon us, brandishing his machete and using it to point at our panniers, “I am security. I need to know what you have in those bags.” “Just some clothes” I lied, hoping he wasn’t about to ask me to open them. He took a step closer, there was something unbalanced about him, “Do you know what this is?” he asked slicing his machete theatrically through the air in front of us. “Yes” I replied as brightly as I could, “a machete, our friend who is coming has just bought one….” “It’s a bit bigger than that” I quickly added. At this point one the other guys came over and Bulgy eyes reluctantly backed away. From his new position he continued to throw us menacing stares whilst slashing at the surrounding grass in a bizarre demonstration of his machete skills. The whole situation would have been hilarious if it wasn’t quite so scary. As bulgy eyes looked on the other guy casually mentioned that the entrance fee for the waterfalls was going to be $50 per person or $100 if we wanted to camp …we felt at once relieved and annoyed, it appeared that they didn’t want to rob us after all, just intimidate us into paying a ridiculous admission fee for the waterfall!! (Actually I am pretty sure that bulgy eyes would have liked nothing more than to rob us and possibly chop us into teeny tiny pieces with his machete, but it seemed that his violent proclivities were being kept in check by the others).
After what seemed like an age, Jim’s Subaru finally came into sight, closely followed by Fabian. Bulgy eyes got their first and began grabbing at their door handles, which were fortunately locked. With the arrival of our friends however, the others seemed to realise their intimidation tactics would no longer work and instead decided to act like we were all the best of chums (at this point only bulgy eyes was still holding his machete). Despite the admission fee being quickly dropped to $5 when it became apparent we were going to leave, we decided that we would rather miss out on Liberia’s answer to Niagara Falls than give these guys our money. It was worth it to see the look of utter fury on bulgy eyes face as we drove away. Later on we read some similar stories of tourists being threatened by gangs of men with machetes when trying to visit waterfalls in Côte d’Ivoire. It appeared this had been our first, but almost certainly not our last encounter with the waterfall mafias of West Africa!