The truck had sunk deep into the mud. In the middle of the road where a stream had made the already soft gravel into a regular mud bath. In a 40 degree angle, the truck’s right front wheel had disappeared in deep into the red mud.
26.09.2016 - 30.09.2016 28 °C
It’s some of the hardest travel in the world. That’s the reason why West Africa isn’t overrun by travellers. West Africa’s biggest problem, both economical and for travellers and tourists, is its poor infrastructure. Nowhere is this truer than in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Many overlanders, driving from Morocco to South Africa (the most common type of tourist here), bypass this corner of the region entirely. They instead prefer to go directly from Senegal, through Mali, to either Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire. But I had never imagined the difficulties I faced getting from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to Monrovia, the capital of neighbouring Liberia.
Setting out from Freetown is a relatively comfortable drive, on a paved road with decent tarmac, to Bo, a regional capital in the centre of the country. The drive is supposed to take approximately three hours, but as our shared taxi broke down and was towed the last dozen kilometres into town that turned to four and a half hours. No matter, I would still make my connection the next morning. The poda-poda, or minibus, is only half full, but as the only daily connection to the village of Potoru, it’s actually scheduled. An hour’s drive in the paved road disappeared. Granted, pavement was missing for large parts and potholes were everywhere, but it was nonetheless a mostly paved road. Now the rest of the four-hour trip is on gravel, which quickly turns into mud. In places, the road is simply replaced by a continuous row of big holes full of muddy brown water.
I pause my trek towards the border at Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary for a few days, hoping to see the endangered and very elusive pygmy hippo. After two days of searching, I gave up. I’d been sitting on the lookout in the early morning rains for hours, trekked through the pitch black jungle well after midnight, and sailed through the swamp at sunset without any sightings. I hope my luck will change once I’d gotten to Liberia, where there would be more chances to catch a glimpse of the animal.
From Potoru public transport is non-existing during the rainy season. I can either wait for the first post-rains poda-poda, which will probably come through town two or three weeks from now, or I can hire a moto taxi. It’s pretty simple, really.
Driving along the mud tracks, which is called a road down here, for three hours brings me to the small market town of Zimmi. Here I hope to find onward transport to the border. Zimmi is just 44 km from Sierra Leone’s main border crossing with Liberia, so arriving in the early afternoon still gives me some hope of reaching the border crossing before it closes at 2000 hours. I’ll just repeat the important bit: this is the main border crossing between Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Having arrived here, there is nothing resembling onward transportation. That is unless I’ll jump on another moto taxi, their owners eager to take me to the border for wildly inflated prices. The terrestrial rain starts – once again – pouring heavily with no end in sight. I’m not going anywhere unless I’m under some kind of roof.
Seeking shelter under a small shack selling bootleg movies and charging cell phones, I meet Michael who’s managing the shop. When electricity is unavailable to most people, but mobile phones cheap, the business of charging phones booms in the smallest of towns. All you need is a generator and enough outlets to set up shop. Michael is also the second in command at the customs’ checkpoint on the outskirts of town. His paychecks are usually delayed for months if he’s paid at all, so he lives on the small shack’s income and the bribes paid at the checkpoint.
Michael offers me tea and arranges for the officers manning the checkpoint to check passing vehicles for an available seat on my behalf. For four hours not a single vehicle pass through town. Finally, a monster of a truck turns up. Not one of those regular cargo trucks, rather one looking like a military vehicle or an airport fire engine. With room enough for me, we are soon racing through the mud. The machine is probably the most powerful I’ve driving in. The driver, charging the otherwise impenetrable tracks as fast as the small, manoeuvrable moto taxies are able to, relied on raw power. We splinter thousands of branches as we ploughed through the trees and bushes encroaching on the road from the surrounding jungle.
We are rarely driving faster than 20 km/h, but this road – one of the worst I’ve ever driven – the speed is impressive. Along the way we are passing three 4x4’s that are stuck in the mud. Two of them had been abandoned long ago, while the third was being dragged out by fourth Landcruiser. A fifth 4x4 had overheated in the horrible conditions, and we had to tow it into the next village.
As dusk approached, we arrived at the scene of the truck’s proudest moment. A regular truck had sunk deep into the mud, almost tipping over. Weighing well over 25 tonnes it seemed like a lost cause… until we came around, that is. With an iron chain as thick as my arm – which snapped twice – our driver somehow manage to pull the truck out of its helpless position. Having come down the road as bad as this one, it seems almost silly. I will be a matter of time before the truck gets stuck again. When that happens there will be not monster machines around to save it.
No matter the impressive power of our engine, the 44 km still took more than four hours to complete. We arrive long after the border post had closed, and I’m forced to spend the night in a basic guesthouse here.
In all – without counting my stop at Tiwai – it have taken three days of back-breaking driving on whatever vehicle available to cover the 390 km from Freetown to the border. A distance Google Maps think can be done in less than six hours. Had I not hired a moto taxi or been lucky with the miraculously strong engine and instead relied solemnly on public transportation it would have taken much longer – I might still have been stuck in the mud between Zimmi and the border. Imagine my surprise the next morning when I found a well paved and smooth road on the Liberian side of the frontier. Here a shared taxi took me the 125 km to Monrovia in a couple of hours.
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