A Travellerspoint blog

Dangerous Mali… Or is It...

Touring Mali as a tourist. But is it really as suicidal as many think it is?

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Bamako's Train Station

Bamako's Train Station

I’m not trying to talk down the risks of visiting Mali. Then again, I kind of am. Sure, a few things are different from your usual vacation spot. During one weekend in Bamako, a security warning about a possible upcoming attack kept everybody indoors. A few weeks earlier there was an attack on an army barrack 60 km outside Bamako a few weeks, and I would lie if I didn’t feel a little uneasy when we went to a bar were a terrorist attack had killed five people back in March. Then again, the warned attack never came; the attack outside Bamako was directed, not at tourists, but at the military; and I’d happily use Bruxelles Airport again, so why not a Bamako bar?

Booze cruising

Booze cruising

The fact is that I felt pretty safe – especially in Bamako. Even with the security warning. The place I stayed is the best place I’ve been for the past eight months, and I ended hanging out there for more than two weeks. About ten days longer than planned. The owners and staff took me in and made me part of their extended family of regulars and long-term occupants. That meant plenty of partying, karaoke and booze cruising on the Niger River. All perfectly doable in the shade of the more troubled stories typically associated with Mali. The country does deserve some positive PR at the moment. Before 2012 it was probably the most visited West African country. And rightfully so. Mali has a, for the region, unique mix of ethnicities, historical and natural attractions, and a lively and colourful economy making the country a gem – though it is little rough around the edges at the moment.

Clay burning

Clay burning

When I finally moved on from Bamako, Mali didn’t disappoint. A few hours northeast – still in what is considered the “safe south” – Ségou is the hometown of Mali's pottery production. An overnight river cruise took me and a Belgium/Senegalese couple through the surrounding villages to see the traditional burning of clay pottery before it’s sailed to the big market in Ségou . We spend the night on the Niger River, camping on a small sandy bank that had appeared as the high waters of the rainy season retracted. Again, perfectly safe.

From here I moved into more risky territory. Or rather, to where the US, UK and other governments advise against all travel. In the south, they just advise against “all but essential travel.” As I think I’ve already mentioned, governments tend to be very conservative in their security statements, mostly because they are the ones who will have to come and get you if something goes wrong. As a precaution, I arranged for a guide to pick me up as I arrived at my next destination, Djenné.

Moonlit river crossing

Moonlit river crossing

The reason to hire a local guide is simply. He knows the place and its people. If someone is trying to kidnap me, my best chance of hearing of it is by having local eyes and ears whose economy is based on tourists and their continuing visits. It also saved me a 5 km walk into town on my arrival. I’d gotten a late start to the day, so my shared taxi arrived at the final river crossing after the ferry had stopped sailing for the day. We could still cross the river by dugout canoe, but Djenné was still be a good hour’s walk further on. A phone call later Mohammad arrived on his scooter and ferried me to a hotel where he trusted the staff.

Djenné's Great Mosque

Djenné's Great Mosque

Helpful guides aside, the real reason to come to Djenné is the fact that the entire town, build on a small island, is made of mud. Wet dirt mixed with a few straws have created an ancient town, which still stands today because the local population viciously re-plaster their houses with fresh mud after each rainy season. Djenné’s centrepiece is its Grand Mosque. More than 18m high, it’s the largest mud/earth building in the world. Few terrorists would be able to talk me out of visiting this place.
Mohammad did mention that an attack on UN peacekeepers had taken place around 40 km outside Djenné a few weeks prior. But he also ensures me that everything was okay within the town. As with most of these attacks, it happened on the northwestern side of the Niger River. It’s a rather vital piece of information for my travels here, since the main highway – and all the sites I’m visiting – is to the south-east of the river, the more tightly controlled part of the country.

Mopti

Mopti

Moving further north, to the most important harbour on the Niger River, Mopti, Mohammad and I decided that it would be safer to take a small shared taxi, rather than a large bus. On the one hand, shared taxis are more intimate, and the fewer passengers mean that the already very small risk of someone calling the wrong guys to rat me out is even lower. On the other hand, it’s harder to keep a low profile in a shared taxi and passengers are hassled more at police checkpoints. A couple of times local law enforcement viewed my visit with great scepticism. At the very least I had to promise that I wouldn’t to go further north than Mopti to be let through the checkpoints. Not that I planned to anyway.

UN Peacekeepers

UN Peacekeepers

Arriving in Mopti I would soon understand why. The city not only has the most important port on the Niger, but it also has a large UN base. The first thing we came across – even before I had exited the taxi – was a large convoy of UN trucks and technicals (pickup trucks with big machine guns mounted on the back) full of ‘blue helmets’. Walking around Mopti the next day I came across a single UN jeep protected by no less than two technicals. A lot of firepower to protect a single civilian vehicle. The UN means business up here.

Mopti Kids

Mopti Kids

I had no guide on my walk around Mopti. So I had to explore the bustling harbour of Mopti on my on. The river is the most important way of transporting goods in Mali. With Mopti’s strategic location as a staging post between the north and the south, the town has grown rich. A few happy locals did come up to me ensuring me that “there are no ‘problems’ in Mopti.” ‘Problems’ being the favourite word to describe everything bad. It’s like “Voldemort.” If they actually say the words “war,” “attack,” “terrorism,” etc. it seems bound to happen. Unlike Bamako and Djenné though, I didn’t hear about any reason attacks here. Instead of a guide, I’d taken a hotel recommendation from Mohammad who knew the guys there and had called ahead to tell them to take care of me. This worked great, and I was treated like a king.

Riverside Mosque

Riverside Mosque

My last Mali-stop this time around will be a five-day trek through the so-called Dogon country. The areal is isolated by both savanna and mountains, and unlike any of the other places I’ve been isn’t it a well-protected urban centre. This does play a little with my nerves as the shared taxi left Mopti. It doesn’t help that the soldiers at the last checkpoint keep saying, “Pays Dogon, c’est par bon!” Basically, “Dogon Country, it’s no good.” My paranoia is beginning to creep up on me. The more optimistic voices in my head argue that it is simply a matter of the government not having a secure hold of the area because of it's isolation. The fact that the government doesn’t control it is not the same as the bad guys do. Isolation from one part can also mean isolation from the other.

Once again I have arranged to meet with my guide for the trek when I arrive. I'll have to discuss the situation with him and then figure out what to do...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:04 Archived in Mali Tagged travel terrorism terrorist war tourism travelling mali dangerous danger djenné dogon mopti safe west_africa kidnapping bamako Comments (1)

Travelling to a Warzone

Mali might not be your standard holiday destination, but damn it if I'm going to let the terrorist win!

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Enter: Mali

Enter: Mali

A few months before this blog post, the Danish government passed a law making it illegal to enter a country were an [Islamic] insurgency is taking place. The legislation is aimed at radicalised youth travelling to Syria to join Islamic State, and the Danish Foreign Ministry will determine which countries should be added to that list on a case-to-case basis. Potentially, Mali, where I'm heading next, is on that list. We’ll see what happens. As of now, I don’t plan to join the al-Qaeda, but you just never know.

Travelling Afghanistan

Travelling Afghanistan

I’ve done a fair amount of visiting countries in internal turmoil, so I’m not too nervous. In 2007 I visited Sudan, in 2013 Afghanistan and a year later Iraq. Mali might just be the calmest country on that list. This has, not surprisingly, lead to both worry comments from friends and some sharp ridicule of my intelligence. To the extent that I have friends who refuse to follow my blogs because I post entries like this one. “Stupid, but Lucky” has long been my travel motto. So much that I’ve looked up the Latin translation, but “Steltus, sed Felix” doesn’t ring well as the English version.

UN Soldiers, Mali

UN Soldiers, Mali

It should be said, though, that I rarely go to active war zones. During the mentioned visits, I have never experienced a gun fight, a bombing or any other form of attack. These are large countries and staying away from the “hot” zones is usually possible. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is something impossible is this world – even during the Boston Maraton or Bastille celebrations – though I do admit that my risks of ending there is bigger than those of your average New Englishman or Frenchman. The highest risk I’m taking of a different kind, but also one that I wouldn’t realise before it’s too late. Kidnapping for ransom or, less likely, beheading could be planned two blogs away while I feel perfectly safe in my hotel. There are some ways to counter this risk, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Somehow it seems travellers have to take a lot of heat from friends when making risky choices. More than people having other life-threatening hobbies. Sure, I don’t how much families complain before someone attend to climb Mount Everest – but at least a couple of individuals die every year attempting to reach the top. I tend to consider my travelling at par with mountaineering. Both in risk and reward.

UK Travel Advise for Mali

UK Travel Advise for Mali

But back to Mali. First of all, the south is considered safe. Mainly the area around Bamako. Safe is, of course, relative, and there was an attack about 40 km outside the city a few weeks ago. Just like security warnings that confining everybody behind their hotels’ tall walls for days are common. The trouble really begins as one is moving north. The mythical Sahara towns of Timbuktu and Gao (both World Heritage Sites) is most definitely off limit. Mostly, because the area around the towns is largely controlled by the insurgents. I could probably catch a UN flight from Bamako to Timbuktu and avoid the roads and checkpoints, but the price tag (200US$) almost scares me more than the kidnappers. A risk that would probably be worse in Timbuktu than in Northern Afghanistan because the town is so small. I wouldn’t be able to hide. Then there’s the border area between then north and the south. Also, mythical Djenné, the Dogon Country (both Heritage Sites) and the important port of Mopti are bordering the troubled spots. The UK Foreign Service advice to “avoid all travel” in the region – contrary to the south which is only categorised as “avoid all essential travel.” Raids, attacks and insurgency activities are more widespread here than in the south, but far from the situation in the north.

Bamako Traffic

Bamako Traffic

In Bamako, people recognise this. Civilian staffers at NGO’s and the embassies tend to think I’m crazy, while military personnel tend to compliment the size of my balls for planning going up there. There’s also a distinct difference in their advice. Civilian staffers think that going up there should be avoided, while military personnel believe that it’s doable if I’m careful. I guess this divide comes down to the level of risk the two groups are used to take. Going up there do require me to take more care than usually. I need to attach myself to local people that can be trusted and who know and follow the local situations. This includes spending time in Bamako making friends, maybe even hiring guides and if necessary pay someone to drive me between the towns if it’s deemed too dangerous to use local transport. Either because the roads pass through unfriendly territory or because the level of insurgency is unusually high and it would be easy for opportunists on the buses of bus stations to sell me out to potential kidnappers.

Whatever the risks, I’ve done this before and is getting better at judging whether something is doable or not. So far have I come out alive every time, and I don’t tend to take any risks that could diminish the chances of this happening again. Other than actually entering Mali that is. And I’ll be sure to let you know if I get arrested on my return to Denmark too.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 01:41 Archived in Mali Tagged travel terrorism terrorist war travelling mali dangerous danger djenné dogon mopti safe west_africa kidnapping war_zone Comments (0)

Lies, Forgery and Other Ways to Apply for Visas

Talking point number one among African travellers...

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Visas. Those stickers that allow travellers to cross borders. The regions describe as the “hardest to travel” usually have the strictest visa regimes. I would argue that that’s often why they are so hard to travel. Central Asia and West Africa stands out (as Central Africa still isn’t considered travelable). Countries in these regions insist visitors carry a prearranged visa, don’t issue them on their borders, and requires that visitors apply for visas in their country of origin. For overland travellers, this leads to problems. Visas tend only to be valid for three months, and many have specific dates printed on them. It might seem like a particular “travellers problem,” but it’s an existential one; without access, we can’t travel at all.

To combat all this, I’ve developed a broad range of skills, tricks and mischiefs to get my visas while on the road. To this date, the only country that has ever denied me is Saudi Arabia – a country notoriously difficult for travellers to get into as there are no tourist visas and strict, strict rules for transit visas. Sure, one embassy might have turned me down, but another have then always been willing in its stead. Sometimes, it requires a bit of persistence and once in a while I’ve been in for a proper fight.

For this purpose I now share my guide:

Step 1: Do the research.
Embassy staffers are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats hate sloppy and unprepared clients. Anyone stand a much better chance of getting a visa if they come prepared. Guidebooks, web forums and fellow travellers are usually able to point out which embassies are willing to give you are visa and which are not. If you can’t find the information, begin to visit embassies en-route and do the inquiries yourself. Take Ghana. Ministerial rules strictly insist that all visitors must apply in the nearest embassy to their home country. I already knew that embassies in Senegal, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire strictly follow this and will usually deny travellers a visa. The embassy in Burkina Fase is apparently a 50/50 chance, but too close to Ghana for my comfort. So I visited three of the more out-of-the-way embassies and found staffers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all willing to make an exception from the rule. The reason? Everybody travels through the former countries, while very few travellers make it to the latter. Therefore staffers haven’t grown tired of people dropping in to ask to be exempt from the rules. As a rule of thumb, the best places to try your luck are little visited, out-of-the-way embassies. Or even better, a small consulate instead of the capital embassy.

Step 2: Please the diplomats.
The reality is that ministries are far from embassies. And the consulates can pretty much do as they please; many do. Acknowledging the diplomats’ power over you (i.e., they determine whether you get the visa you want) helps tremendously. But don’t appear desperate. And never be in a rush! Rushed travellers give the diplomats an excuse to exercise their power. So does desperate travellers. Even if you are in a hurry, don’t show it. Rushed and stressed travellers are the diplomat’s equivalent to a bull’s red cloth. Even if you know all the requirements, take the time to show up a day before you apply to “ask about the visa requirements.” Even if it’s simply a matter of asking about photocopies or the number of passport photos required. Everybody likes humility and preparedness, diplomats more so. This will, by the way, be a theme through the rest of the steps. Also, on this initial visit, make sure to talk about how friends have told you all about the beautiful nature and the friendly people of country X. Be sure to name some of the highlights and how you always have wished to visit. That will melt the iciest of diplomat hearts. Even better, come up with a personal connection to the country – for Ghana, I used the Danish slave forts on the coast, something we aren’t thought in school. So my only chance to learn about the gruesome past of Danish history was to go and see for myself.

Step 3: Exceptions from the rules
If there is a requirement you don’t live up to, say, being a residence in the country you’re in, explain your situation and ask if it’s possible to make an exception. Other embassies need proof of flight tickets or expensive hotel bookings. Preferably, you would like to talk about this directly with the consul, not the paper-pusher out front – though you possibly still have to flatter them before being allowed to see the consul. When explaining yourself, never come off as a rich, spoiled, Westerner who feels entitled to be let into their country. This might be common sense here on paper, but it’s surprising how many who let their frustrations of these visa schemes get to them. Visible anger, frustration or arrogance equals no visa. Alway. (Admittedly I haven’t tried crying.) Again, please the diplomats.

Step 3 ½: Make a solid cover story
In other words: Be prepared to lie! On many embassies being a mere tourist, who well fully knew it’s required to apply from home, but ignored this because it didn’t fit with the spend-a-year-in-West-Africa plan aren’t necessarily given an exemption. Being an unprepared tourist who “didn’t know” doesn’t seem to do the trick either. My favourite cover story on this trip has been to claim that I’m in West Africa to do PhD research. This required me to stay longer than the three months most visas are valid for. Usually, I “study” the social and economic innovation of small scale business in Africa. This is a particularly useful topic as small businesses here are ahead of Europe. Thus I can claim to research how Europe can learn from Africa – something most diplomats like to hear. Again, please the diplomats. They never look closely at my passport anyway, so usually, I just pick a few countries and claim to have spent the majority of the time there. This worked at a number of embassies in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Step 4: Fake the right documents
In HR it might be called resourcefulness. In Law, it’s probably forgery. Demands like hotel booking, flight tickets, letter of invitations, and likewise are pretty standard. Usually, it’s possible to be exempt just one demand. Say, of residence status. It’s less likely to get out of all these minor requirements. Of course, it’s possible to make bookings on sites like hotels.com, bookings.com, etc. and get a full refund when you cancel the booking a few days later. Fully refundable plane tickets are also an option, but those are expensive. Embassies don’t call to confirm hotel and airline reservations, but departing with significant amounts of money isn’t my favourite thing to do. So I just make my own confirmations. I’ve made a couple of templates from older bookings, so when required I can simply update the details based on real flights and put in some of the nicer hotels in the country capitals.

Step 5: Pick up your visa. Smile (and try not to look too smug until you’ve left the embassy grounds).

While this all sounds well complicated, most visas are easy – as long as you know which embassies are willing to provide you with what you need. My visa for Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau both took just 20 minutes from I handed in the form to the sticker was in my passport. Mali took a couple of days in waiting time but at the cost of less than 8€ (most expensive was Mauritania, Liberia and my second visa for Guinea at circa 120€). Most challenging West African visas tend to be Côte d’Ivore, Ghana and Nigeria – I still haven’t secured the latter. While the embassy in Bamako, was happy to ignore my lack of residence status, their visa was only valid for three months – it’s still four months until I get there… But there're six countries with Nigerian embassies to go, so I haven’t given up yet.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 14:20 Archived in Guinea Tagged travel visa travelling liberia guinea mail west_africa visas nigeria sierra_leone ghane ivory_coast embassies Comments (0)

Hitching a Ride – with a Plane

Monrovia-Harper Round Trip part V – the end.

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Read Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV here.

Harber beaches

Harber beaches

As difficult Harper is to get to, as fantastic it is to hang out in. The town occupies a beautiful spot, right where the West African coast breaks its south-eastern trajectory and begins to run due east. Surrounded by paradise-looking beaches and full of grand buildings from the 1950 – including a Masonic lodge – it’s Liberia’s most attractive city.

And while I don’t mind hanging out here, I immediately started wondering if there is an alternative way back to Monrovia other than the four-day trek I’d made to get here.

Harber Architecture

Harber Architecture

Two people are of great help to me in that effort. The first Mitch is an American stationed here by the Danish Refugee Council. Strolling past their offices on my way around town I couldn’t help popping my head in since I’m Danish. Mitch is kind enough to welcome me warmly and to tell me about a small Christian NGO that is flying between Harper and Monrovia a few times every week. While they are always booked out weeks in advance, there’s pretty often no-shows. So if I just show up and talk to the pilot, I might be able to hitch a ride with them.
The other person is my breakfast guy. Bob owns the shack I taking my breakfast. Beside the classic omelette sandwich he does a mean porridge and some good spaghetti – yes, spaghetti can be considered breakfast here in Liberia. Bob’s one of those people who knows everybody and everybody know him. He is promising to find me an NGO driving who can take me back to Monrovia. The NGO vehicles take the route on the coastal roads, which should only take two days.

MAF Flight Arriving

MAF Flight Arriving

Having talked to Mitch, I’m heading straight to the airport. There isn’t suppose to be a plane there today, but I might be able to find someone who can get me on a flight. In a stroke of luck, the plane is there having just landed with supplies for the local hospital. Passenger flights are Friday and Monday; today is Thursday. As I would like to hang around here for I, bit I prefer to get on the Monday flight. However, given the luck I need to get on a flight, I’m taking no chances. Not only is the flights usually book out, the NGO, called MAF, is a Christian NGO that primarily flies NGO staffers and missionary/church employees.
Chatting with the pilot, he told me a lot of what Mitch had already said to me and that I’m welcome to show up to see if there are any no-shows. Then he casually asks which organisation I’m with. The idea that any tourist would make it to Harper is too foreign for most people here. I panic fearing that not working for an NGO might lose me my chance for getting on the flight. I’m a pretty good liar, and before I manage to think about it, I simply answer, “DRC” - the acronym for the Danish Refugee Council. Being Danish, this is a pretty believable cover story. He bought it, and I stayed in character for the rest of the conversation. If you, the pilot, happens to read this, I’m sorry. I panicked.

Harber fishing boat

Harber fishing boat

Showing up Friday morning the poor pilot still thinks I’m a DRC staffer, and still nervous that it will lose me my privilege stand-by position I don’t tell him the truth. As a matter of fact, there is a no-show. Unfortunately for me, other two passengers showed up even though their seats had been cancelled. They just hadn’t received gotten the memo. The MAF flight is transporting a patient to the hospital, who takes up two extra seats. The pilot got those two guys fitted on the plane, but that makes it pretty obvious that there isn’t room for me. I happily have to spend my weekend in Harper.
To be honest, most of the weekend is spent hanging out on the beach eating lobster with Mitch and a bunch of other NGO staffers.Not doing that, I’m hanging out at Bob’s. He’s wasting no time, and in a few hours he is able to hook me up with an NGO driver, who can take me to Harper on Tuesday should I not get on the MAF flight. I have a backup plan!

Taking off

Taking off

Monday morning at the airfield the first passenger who’s name is called isn’t here. For next minute last forever but eventually, once the other six passengers are called up, the pilot tells me he’s taking me with him. Among the other passengers is someone who is actually a DRC employee – this makes me fairly nervous as she can blow my cover instantly if the conversation comes up. We’re boarding without any issues, and the small plane is soon bumping along the grass runway. Taking off over the palm beaches is nothing short of phenomenal. I made it!
We’re making a short stopover in Zwedru to pick up another passenger. Here the pilot pray for us, which feels kind of weird. The detour means that we, for most of the flight, are flying Eventually, above Liberia’s dense jungle. It almost seems like a charter flight.

On the plane!!

On the plane!!

The trip is 150 USD, but apparently, the DRC pay directly to MAF. This means that the pilot doesn't expect me to pay, as he still thinks I’m a DRC staffer. However, I’m not that bad of a person. Not paying would be the equivalent of stealing from a humanitarian relief agency. I paid the pilot as I ought to. In his surprise, he repeats that the DRC is paying centrally. As any good lier would I covered up my initial lie with another lie, stating that I’m based in Bissau and my costs are covered by another budget.

Eventually it takes me a little more than two hours to get back to Monrovia – not another five days!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 05:12 Archived in Liberia Tagged beach travel flight transport road travelling liberia west_africa harper adventure_travel monrovia rainy_season Comments (0)

Driving through the Jungle Night with no Lights On

Monrovia-Harper Round Trip part IV

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Part I, Part II and Part III here.

Post-flip

Post-flip

Spending the night in the village teacher’s house, I didn’t return to our car until it had already been pulled out from the mud. My fellow passengers were busy strapping all the luggage onto the roof. To my surprise as we didn’t take it down last night. What was up?
As the car was dragged free, it had apparently flipped over, landing on its side. No one got hurt; only the driver was inside the car. But all the luggage had to be taken off before they were able to push it upright again. The car had gotten some nasty scratches and the inside – where I thought my backpack was safe – had gotten a mudbath as mud and water entered through the open windows. Lovely.
Not that it matters. The important thing is that we are moving again. Everybody is pretty eager to get out of here. Though I am regretting not being able to say the teacher a proper goodbye as we race past his house.

Pulling out the lorry

Pulling out the lorry

Our next endurance is so typically Africa travel that it’s hard to describe: Rolling up to a bit of road too muddy for anyone to pass, a small diversion through the jungle has been made to get around the hard bit. Alas, yet another truck has gotten stuck in this deviation. Here are cars waiting in line on both sides of this mess. But as the truck is closest to our side, and we got the most capable vehicle this side of the mud pit, it’s up to us to pull it out. It’s a small lorry, so after a short struggle, we manage to get it out. We don’t even get the pull rope off before – out of nowhere – a second truck is blasting past the waiting cars opposite us, racing into the diversion and gets completely stuck. Totally unhelpable stuck.
The driver figured he better try his luck before all the powerful four-wheelers had gone past. If we all makes it nobody will be around to help him. Regardless, nobody can drag him out. Nobody wants to try. We’re letting the complaining driver cry about us not helping him. Most of us are relatively happy that he will now have to spend weeks sleeping here in his stupid truck. Instead, we’re beginning to chop down trees, building a new road around the lorry.

Building our own road

Building our own road

We’re actually forced to make a new road. It’s taking us most of the afternoon, but nonetheless, we’re able to chop enough trees down to pass. Leaving the driver and his truck behind; not without smug smiles on our faces. Karma – not that I believe in that bullocks – soon catches up to us, though. Rather suddenly, the cooler starts to leak from two small holes. Now we can’t drive any further because the engine keeps overheating. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Kilometres from the nearest village. Almost routinely now, we put our driver on a passing mototaxi and sends him to the nearest town to bring back help.

Motor Trouble

Motor Trouble

We would later learn that instead of getting help, the driver simply went home to his mistress in said town. Obviously, we wouldn’t be pleased.
On the road, dusk is coming. This close to the equator, twilight lasts for mere minutes. Not in the mood to spent another night in the jungle, I pop the hood. It is here worth to mention that I know nothing about cars – let alone anything about fixing engines. But I am the only person left with a driver’s license, so Alex and my fellow passengers cheer me on. Pouring more water on the cooler two clear sprays of water shoots out. Clearly, we’re not going anywhere like this. Thinking back to some stupid TV commercial about the sucking ability of tissue, and still not knowing what the hell I’m doing, I pluck the two holes with my emergency toilet paper.

It fucking works! Unbelievable!

Struggling

Struggling

We’re still leaking water, but only by a fraction of the speed. Alex and I agree to give it a go. No spending the night here. We are quickly figuring out that we’re able to drive for 10-12 minutes before all the water has leaked and the engine is getting too hot. Refilling the water and waiting for the engine to cool down again is taking another 10 minutes. But even by this speed, we should be able to reach the town to where we sent the driver in about two hours. So off we go. In a car, I’ve repaired with toilet paper…
Luckily the road condition is improving. But we have a new problem. The battery still isn’t charging. Driving with the headlights on I’m draining the battery quickly. The lights are slowly dimming. Finally, half an hour from the town they set out entirely. It’s pitch black around us now, and I’m still driving. The battery is so drained that I don’t even have light in the dashboard. With the exception of three red warning lights, that is, one of which is telling me that the battery’s power. Thanks.

View through the windshield

View through the windshield

We’re too close to town to give up now. Too damn close! Africans tend to be more innovative than Westerners, and Alex is quick to come up with the solution. We’ll simply put the teenage kid, who’s with us, on the roof with two small flashlights. It’s not enough light for me to see anything else than two small circles of light on the road, but at least other cars can see us (not that there are any other cars). Thus, I continue forward at a crawling pace. All I can see are the two small circles of light, nothing else, so we agree that the kid on the roof(!) will just keep the lights pointed on the middle of the road and I’ll try to drive wherever he point the lights.
Incredibly, we reach our destination a place called Fish Town, without too many mishaps, at 10 pm. Here’s no fish (we’re still in the middle of the jungle) and there’s barely a town. But we’ve made it. In a car, I repaired with toilet paper and drove through the jungle night with a teenager on the roof holding showing me the way with two flashlights. I feel genuinely proud of this achievement!

Harper!!

Harper!!

It takes the mechanics four hours to fix the car the next morning. Four hours to repair the wreck I drove into the town. The good news is that the road improves from here. Massively. A Chinese company is paving the road. They’ll supposedly be done at the beginning of the next decade, but the gravel is fresh and flat and here’s no mud. At some point, we even manage to drive 500 metres without hitting a pothole. A rarity on any West African gravel road! Almost unbelievable. On Day 4, we’re at the end of the road and reach Harper – the last town in southern Liberia. It’s 7 pm and dark, but Harper still feels like a treasure reached after a long adventure. And I’m pretty sure that it is. It is certainly a personal victory! I send one of the boys from the guesthouse out to get me a beer. Drink it in my room. Fall asleep.

The last thing I want to think about now is how the hell I get all the way back to Monrovia. I don’t want to spend another four days one these roads. But is there another way?

Progress reports: Day 3, 161 km in 15 hours. Day 4, 129 km in 9 hours after 4 hours of mechanical work.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 02:07 Archived in Liberia Tagged travel transport road bush travelling liberia west_africa harper adventure_travel monrovia rainy_season fish_town Comments (0)

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