West Africa – Monrovia or Bust

stuck-in-liberia.JPGI’m on my own. 3000km to go from from Dakar to Monrovia. It’s July 26th and the rainy season is kicking in. My Land Rover was built 34 years ago and had 7 previous owners. Still, I’ve got a Haines repair manual…

I’d given a lot of thought to the final leg of my journey. The FCO website was less than encouraging. The Casamance region of southern Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia all had plenty of travel warnings. They were particularly against lone travel, and travel through rural areas.

The lush forests of Casamance were an incredible contrast to the arid, desert like north of Senegal. It was also clear to see that the political landscape had changed down here. Military checkpoints guarded every major settlement and crossroads. Soldiers in APC’s, presumably there to confine the separatist rebels to the jungle, didn’t quite know what to make of me as I pulled up to their rope barriers. Everyone was very friendly, especially after I’d distributed some cigarettes, although many were keen to shake me down for expensive stamps in my “laissez-passer” – an unnecessary document I’d been forced to buy upon entering the south. Generally speaking, patience, and a feigned inability to speak French, got me out of paying almost all bribes. The bumbling Englishman abroad was an act which I perfected over my three week trip.

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Border crossings are a nightmare for most travellers in developing countries, and getting into Guinea was no exception. My feigned inability to speak French had now turned into a very real inability to speak Portuguese, but I was made to understand very quickly what it would take to get through smoothly. Unfortunately for the guards, I had a lot of time on my hands, and not much money. Two hours (and a very thorough search of the car) later, I was through, without having to dip into my dollars.

The roads in Senegal had been average. In fact, most of the journey from the UK had been on a good tarmac surface. The minute you got into Guinea Bissau, all the development money dried up, and it was dirt tracks all the way. River crossings were mainly on a barge, which always involved a steep and precarious descent of the river bank. The rain, combined with overloaded HGV’s snapping their axles, meant plenty of water filled pot holes. It was difficult to judge the depth, but I went through a few that were waist height, and temporarily submerged my headlights.

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Bissau was a beautiful city. The abandoned Portuguese quarter was reminiscent of a disaster film and the place had almost an abandoned feel. Most of the buildings were still riddled with bullet holes, and there was little visible evidence of international aid. Grizzled Portuguese ex-pats sat on their verandas, sipping cups of thick black coffee, watching the few lone locals go about their business. Stray pigs wandered the streets. Occasionally, a shiny Toyota Land Cruiser would glide past. If there were bustling areas, I could not find them.

The people at the Guinean Embassy were delighted to hear an Englishman wanted to visit their country. The Ambassador shook my hand warmly, gave me his card, and said if I had any problems, to get in touch with his brother, whose number he supplied. To ensure I got there safely, he even entrusted me to his driver, who offered to navigate in return for a lift to see his family in Conakry. “I drive this route all the time,” he told me, “16 hours, maximum. It will be easy.” While I didn’t relish the thought of a 16 hour drive, I had pulled longer stints in Mauritania, and knew that I had copious quantities of Red Bull in the back of the car for emergencies.

We left at 10am the next day, in fair weather. Progress was soon hampered by torrential rain, and the shocking road surfaces, which limited my speed to under 20km/hr in many places. My windscreen wipers also only had one setting – useless – which did not help. By 4am, I was beginning to despair. We were nowhere near Conakry, and my guide had taken me on a crazy detour through the middle of the jungle. After arriving at one river crossing, I sat in line, while watching a mango truck on the other side of the bank try to slowly descend the perilous 40ft slope. Predictably, he began to skid, and the cab ended up fully submerged in the river.

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Our journey finally clocked in at 32 hours. During this time, I had two half hour breaks, one for breakfast (or dinner) at around 4am, where we sat and shared bushmeat with some local traders, and another stop for Coke to keep me going at around 7am. Over the course of the detour I drank 2 litres of Red Bull. Sometimes, we would have to get out of the vehicle and wade through a puddle to check its depth. Other time, we would have to shift a fallen branch. For most of the drive, visibility was less than twenty metres. Had I not been so wired on caffeine, I’m sure it would have been terrifying. We hardly passed any other vehicles for the entire journey. “What do we do if we break down?” I asked my passenger, in my best GCSE French. “Don’t worry, I used to be a mechanic!” he said, barely suppressing the laughter.

Conakry itself was a bustling metropolis, jutting out on an Atlantic peninsula. The police were just as bad as all the horror stories I had read. On the outskirts of the city, I was pulled over and ordered to pay a fine. By this stage, my Englishman abroad routine was beginning to pay dividends, and was well rehearsed. I began to talk much more quickly, waved photocopied documents everywhere, jabbered in nonsensical French and was eventually released.

After unloading my gear at the Mission Catholique, I took to walking or using public transport to avoid being pulled over and having bribes demanded. On one occasion, I foolishly handed over a piece of original documentation (rather than a photocopy). What followed was a scene that will be familiar to any visitor of a corrupt third world nation. Suddenly, I was politely informed that I had committed a series of grave road traffic violations.

“But sir, you are not wearing a seat belt….but sir, you are driving with flip flops….but sir, right hand drive vehicles are not permitted on our roads….” Mid-way through his attempted shake down, I remember the police officer saying to me, “Listen, you want your license back, give me $100.” I politely informed him that I could report it lost and buy a new one for only $40. “Give me $90 then.” You really can’t argue with that.
Luckily, my passenger had a friend in the police force, so after a few phone calls and an hour of debate, my license was returned to me.

The city was to be my base for the next couple of days, as I applied for a Sierra Leone VISA and planned my onward route. During the day, I would talk with the fellow residents of the Mission Catholique, who were mainly volunteers from France and Spain. Occasionally, I would wander into the city centre to use the internet, but this usually turned into an open workshop on filling out US green card lottery applications. It was sad to see how desperate most people were to get to the West, and to hear their frustration about the lack of development and corruption in their home country.

After handing over $150 and receiving my VISA for Sierra Leone from the very friendly people at the Embassy, I began my drive to Freetown. As usual, the roads were appalling. As I was leaving Conakry, a man on a motorcycle with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder started buzzing at my window and gesturing. Trying my best to ignore him, I sped up, but he was easily able to keep pace. After about twenty minutes of staring dead ahead and attempting to ignore him, I finally gave in and opened the window to see what he wanted. It turned out he just wanted to welcome me to Guinea, and wish me a pleasant journey!

My time in Guinea ended as it had begun: with a shakedown. However, the soldiers at the Sierra Leone border were far more welcoming. The first thing I saw as I pulled up was a huge billboard announcing: “Corruption Hinders Development!” This was a great relief to read, and luckily something that these men had taken to heart. They were amazed when they heard about my journey and one of then even offered to accompany me to Freetown and help me find a hotel.

Once again, I was foolishly talked into following a shortcut, and although the weather was slightly better this time, we were very lucky to make it in one piece. At times, the mud track simply vanished underneath a 200m stretch of water. It is a great credit to the Land Rover (and very lucky for me) that it never once stalled when wading through these mammoth puddles.

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The approach to Freetown featured some stunning views of the jungle, as well as a huge mountain. The city itself looks like an amphitheatre, encircling a bay and stretching up steep slopes in every direction. Election fever was in the air, with presidential candidates cruising the streets to announce their policies. Everyone I met would proudly tell me how next week there were going to be free and fair elections in Sierra Leone. I drove past the International Court where various former RUF, CDF and AFRC leaders are being tried for war crimes. Considering the horror that most of these citizens had witnessed only a few years ago, people were incredibly optimistic about the future.

I was sad to leave Freetown, but had to rush as the border would soon close for the elections. I spent the night in Kenema, a rich diamond centre, sharing stories with the locals, and watching the rich Arab traders. I made friends with a man who had lived in New Cross, and now ran an electrical store. It was amazing how closely linked Sierra Leone still is with the UK. My journey from Kenema to Bo Waterside and the Liberian border was the most “off road” of all the off road sections of my trip, taking in rubber plantations, nature parks and more river crossings than I was comfortable with.

It was just before the border that I picked up Senesei. He was a refugee who had fled Sierra Leone to Liberia during the war. He had returned to Freetown for the elections, however, seeing that his party was not going to win, he was returning to Monrovia, where he worked as a mechanic. Once again, I offered him a lift and he helped me find a place to stay once we arrived.

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Entering Liberia was a frightening experience. The road was blocked by sandbagged check points, APC’s and heavy machine gun posts, all emblazoned with the white and black UN colours. The first people I met were not Liberian, but in fact Nigerian peace keepers. At the customs post, Liberia’s US heritage was very clear. Everyone was dressed in American style state-trooper uniforms, and spoke with a slightly inauthentic American accent, right down to the “have a nice day” that would always end a conversation.

Although I got stopped roughly every 5km, Liberia was not as bad as other countries in terms of officials demanding bribes. This is probably lucky, as I could hardly claim I did not understand English. The police, customs and army officers (whether they were Nigerian, Namibian, Pakistani or Liberian) were all very welcoming, and eager that I tell the world how Liberia was working towards peace and reconciliation.

My hotel in Monrovia cost an eye watering $60 a night. The only people there were aid workers and western traders, who seemed to have pushed up the price of everything from bread to Coca Cola. I offered to buy Senesei dinner as thanks for his assistance, but he took one look at the prices on the menu and declined. When I reassured him that I would be paying, he said “No, it is not this. It is that this lifestyle is above my means. Once you are gone, I will never be able to come here again, so I should not get used to it now.”

Once in Monrovia I realised that I could go no further. Travel into the diamond fields would have been too dangerous, as would crossing into the Ivory Coast. I decided to sell my vehicle and fly home. Unfortunately, this was far more easily said than done.

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Senesei was employed as a mechanic by a man know affectionately as “American”. I was suspicious that he was a local crime figure. These suspicions were confirmed on my final day in Liberia, when he was imprisoned for beating two debtors with a baseball bat. However, he was extremely kind to me, and being the local mechanic, was in an excellent position to help me find a buyer for my vehicle.

The next six days was a frantic tour of Monrovia’s underworld, except out there, it really is the wild-west, and people make very little effort to conceal their sources of income. Despite the UN ban on diamond trading, I met numerous South African and Arab diamond merchants, who said they could use my vehicle out in the bush. I met 27 year old American who had fled the US for some unexplained reason to set up shop in Africa. He imported from South America then exported to Europe. He would not say what goods he traded, but laughed wholeheartedly at my question. Then there was the Arab, who owned a logistics firm based in Angola. Many of these men drove Mercedes, wore Rolexes, had the latest mobile phone and lived in palatial compounds, islands in this sea of poverty. They were all very keen to meet me, however, after a few days of time wasting, I realised they were more eager to hear my story than purchase my vehicle.

There is no doubt that Monrovia was a dangerous place. I would often wander out of The Metropolitan Hotel, past the club on the ground floor, and find dried blood on the tiles. One night, there was a 15 man battle-royale in the street outside the hotel. The numbers of people missing an arm or a leg from the war were astounding, and everyone had their own story to tell, although their motives were often mixed. Despite this, there was a heavy military presence throughout the city, and I never felt unsafe. The people were some of the warmest and most welcoming I had met on my entire journey.

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Despite the corruption, the chronic fuel shortages, the weather, the insects, the appalling roads, and the difficulty in finding a postcard, West Africa was a worthwhile destination and an incredible experience. Travelling overland was tiring, and difficult at times, but it meant interacting with far more local people. I helped load a mango truck in the jungles of Guinea Bissau, shared breakfast with game wardens in Sierra Leone and haggled over the price of a spare tyre in Liberia. You can’t pick those sorts of experiences out of a holiday brochure!

Author – Oscar Scafidi.

A full account of Oscar’s journey from London to Monrovia can be read in January’s (2008) edition of Land Rover World in the UK.

  14 comments for “West Africa – Monrovia or Bust

  1. erynn linabury
    December 21, 2007 at 9:48 am

    This is truly a brilliant account of what sounds like an amazing trip!

  2. Dave True
    December 21, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    INCREDIBLE. YOU ARE MY HERO.

  3. Stuart (captain_stu)
    December 22, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I hope you have the same luck in your future travels.

  4. mikethehack
    December 28, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Great article. Now lets talk about how much patience you need to work in places like that. Explain the attraction of living there, as opposed to living in somewhere less annoying, but similar. Great article.

  5. Rob Brighouse
    January 24, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    Oscar you are a complete idiot! Knowing that my son was with you for the 1st leg of your journey continues to send shivers down my spine. Keep up the good work (but not with Mark!!) Rob

  6. Mark Newson
    February 13, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    That is an amazing tale and I’m very jealous. It must have taken some real guts, and some real dedication – I’m very impressed. I particularly liked the part about the guy with a Kalashnikov chasing you for miles just to say “hello”!

    So what’s next? Capetown to Nairobi through Harare? ;-)

  7. Buzz
    April 11, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    IMHO, You are embellishingthe truth with self-heroic intent. “There is no doubt that Monrovia was a dangerous place.” You puss! I’m white and walk around at night with no problem (except for West Point). Travel to IC is not a problem.

  8. Avatar of
    April 13, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    So Buzz, when can we expect your article on how safe it is? ;)

  9. Alessandro
    April 25, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Congrats on a amazing trip. I share your opinion of Guinea-Bissau and my next travel goal is Sierra Leone.

  10. Avatar of
    Lee
    June 2, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    “I’m white and walk around at night with no problem”

    Buzz, you one of those albino black fellas?!

  11. nate
    June 25, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    I have to agree with Buzz. Monrovia is not particularly dangerous. Oscar’s story smells like an embellishment. Liberia has come a long way since the civil war ripped that country apart and President Sirleaf is a true hero in her attempts to piece back the fragments of a once prosperous African nation.

  12. Oscar
    June 27, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Thought I’d address a few of the comments so far:

    Buzz – I was white and I also walked around at night with no problems. Does this make the place safe? No. Does this mean that everyone can walk about at night with no problems? No. For example, why do you not wander about at West Point? There is no “self-heroic embellishment” in my article. My opinion about onward travel to the Ivory Coast was based on talking to people in the area. Perhaps, as you say, it was safe. I will never know.

    nate – In the context of Polo’s Bastards, I suppose Monrovia is not particularly dangerous. It’s no Afghanistan! But there is no fully effective law enforcement, medical facilities are severely limited and there is widespread poverty. The place is a recovering war zone, with UN troops to prove it. It is also a transit point for South American cocaine heading to Europe, as well as a hub of the area’s diamond smuggling industry. You are right, President Sirleaf has done a brilliant job so far, and my story does not aim to detract from her achievements, but she and her country have a long way to go. I hope they make it!

  13. Larry
    July 24, 2008 at 2:35 am

    Thanks for a great travelogue, Oscar. It’s a testament to your courage (or youthful adventuresome spirit) that you drove an old Land Rover through countries where you don’t speak the language.

    It’s interesting to note the observation that Monrovia is a place where diamonds are traded. These are almost certainly stones which were smuggled out of Southeastern Sierra Leone, in the Kenema region. So much for the so-called “Kimberly Accords” which were supposed to address the issue of “blood diamonds”. (Don’t mean to sound a sour note, let’s move on…)

    As you can see, however, the observations of a traveler are valuable all of us stuck in the workaday world. Stay young, and travel in happiness! Cheers.

  14. Camy
    August 15, 2011 at 8:06 am

    That was really interesting to read, thank you for posting!

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