Monthly Archives: March 2014

From Liberia to Ivory Coast

The concept of time and distance
When you ask three Africans how long it will take from Monrovia to Gbanga (in Liberia), you get three different answers. Hour and a half, two hours, four hours, “it depends on how fast you drive; if you drive 50 km p/h it will take you 1 hour”. But it’s 200 km. The same goes for the quality of the road. “The road is sealed all the way, it’s a good road.” Yes, but it’s full of potholes. “With your car, no problem!” No of course not, and I’ll get there in the end. It takes me 4 hours to drive the 200 km., and the road is new, reasonable, badly potholed, and 2nd gear bush track. All of that.
The Hill Top Hotel in Gbanga is like a fort. Heavily guarded, barbed wire fences, CCTV camera’s. It’s the sort of place where NGO and UN staff stay. I talk to dr. Sander Zwart, who works for AfricaRice and is stationed in Cotonou, Benin. He invites me to stay with him when I get there, and I gladly accept the invitation.

A sort of narrow escape
After Ganta the road gets really bad. Lots of Chinese roadworks in progress, so this will be much improved in a year or so. And let’s face it: for me it’s a once in a lifetime inconvenience, but for the people who live here these roads are impassable in the rainy season when complete villages are practically isolated for months.
After an hour there’s a traffic jam. Some 30 trucks and other cars are waiting on a sandy and muddy track for a turned over truck to be removed. I get out and walk the 100 meters to the truck when I see that two taxis try to pass the truck. They are pushed and helped by onlookers and when they finally manage to pass, there’s lots of cheers. “If they can, then I certainly can with the Land Rover” is what I think. Peace of cake. So I walk back and drive past the waiting vehicles to the overturned truck. I stop the car, get out for a last inspection of the situation, still think it can be done, and very, very slowly start the 10 meters to pass the truck. After 17 years I know every inch of this car, I think. A loud noise of metal against metal brings me to a stop. The jerrycan holder at the side of the car is a recent addition, and clearly not part of my knowledge of the car in a critical situation like this. It’s completely ripped off. I get out, pick up the jerrycan and the pieces of the holder, throw them in the back of the car. When I get back into the car, one of the onlookers shouts at me through the window: “You have to turn back, you can’t pass, it’s completely blocked.”  I’m not going to, and slowly drive the last couple of meters past the truck which is on my right. On my left there’s a huge pit of several meters deep. I look at my left front wheel and see that there’s barely a few centimeters space left. On the right the outside mirror hits the truck and collapses. There must be at least 20 people watching the scene: some of them directing me to the right, others to the left. I realize that If  the left front wheel loses traction and gets into the pit, it will be the end of the journey.  When the wheel is past the pit I accelerate and the car is free. Lots of cheers from the men on the scene when I drive off. There’s no problem further down the track.
It’s at moments such as this that I miss someone to film all of this. I was too concentrated to even think of it, so no images and no video unfortunately. I can’t help but think of Winnie the Poeh’s motto: “Be happy and remain calm in every situation.” Yes, I remained calm, I did not panic, made my own decisions. But I was not really happy!
After a tiring day for me and Thimba we arrive at Hotel Cascades in Man, Ivory Coast. Thimba is not allowed in the room, but since it’s 18.00 and she can go to sleep in the car at 20.00, I take the room anyway. So I leave Thimba in the car, guarded by 5 armed security guys and 3 UN Bengladeshi soldiers with automatic weapons in their Toyota’s. I give all these guys a Dutch biscuit (stroopwafel). She’ll be safe, that’s for sure!
Right in front of the car people are weaving in a very special way. In long throngs of perhaps 50 meters, they work all day, from 7.00 to 19.00. And of course they also get a stroopwafeltje while I talk to them.

weaving, Man Ivory Coast

weaving, Man Ivory Coast

Weaving, Man Ivory Coast

Weaving, Man Ivory Coast

 

 

Never lose your temper with a policeman!

Sunset at Robertsport, Liberia

Sunset at Robertsport, Liberia

 

The talkative consul
Monrovia seems to be a good place to get the visa for Ghana. And the consulate for Ivory Coast is practically next door, so I’m off on a visa mission. I take a private taxi and leave the car – with the folded out rooftop tent, and Thimba as a guard – at the A La Laguna resort, who were kind enough to let me camp for free in return for having breakfast and dinner at their restaurant. Fair deal.

The Ivory Coast consul hasn’t arrived yet so his kind and welcoming secretary asks me to wait and fill in a form in the meantime. After half an hour she takes me to the consul, mr. Roland Clovis Kalou, a smartly dressed young man with a great sense of humour and clearly looking for a good conversation. He’s a born storyteller, a natural talent. He has a friend called Agnes, well actually she’s called Agneska since she’s a Polish woman of 19 years old. “ ‘It’s always been my dream to spend some time in the bush, alone, sleep there, stay there for some time, away from it all.’ That’s what she told me. And when she recently came to visit me in Liberia that’s what she did”, he says. He gets up from his leather, high-backed chair, wildly gesticulating with his arms as if to underline the madness of the idea. Interrupting his story only with loud and long laughs. He acts the story. When the story has finally come to an end and he takes a pen to fill in the three lines on the visa in my passport, he puts the pen down and begins to highlight all the attractions of his homecountry. “It’s my job, you know, to promote my country!” After an hour we finally shake hands and say goodbye. “Please, send me some feedback when you leave Ivory Coast?”, he says, and gives me his business card. I never felt more welcome!

Thimba's new place in the front

Thimba’s new place in the front

“Your driver’s license has expired!”
Driving into Monrovia the next day to pick up my Ghana visa, I am stopped by a traffic policeman who wants to check my driver’s license. No problem.
“Expired!”, he says.
”Impossible”, I answer. Wrong answer. At least that’s how it must have sounded to him. Perhaps it is my tone when I explain the difference between date of issue and expiry date.  After having checked my fire extinguisher and triangle he wants to see the documents for the car. It is then that I’m starting to lose my temper (never, ever lose your temper with a policeman: you’ll only make things worse!). He has never seen a Carnet before and doesn’t accept it. I show him it was stamped and signed when I entered Liberia on the 16th of March.
“How many days!”, he barks.
“For as long I want, it’s valid for a year!”, I try.
But in vain. I must say that his speech impediment and his heavy Liberian accent doesn’t really help me. And he can’t understand why I can’t understand him. 50% of the Liberian population is illiterate, and at moments like this I have the strong feeling that all of them are policemen. He summons me to come to the police station, points down the road, stops a random car, jumps in and waves to follow him. He still has all of my papers so with a deep sigh and some 4-letter words (audible, and in English) I agree. Just before the station he gets out, walks up to my car.
“I don’t want to waste any more of your time.”
“And I don’t want to waste yours.”
“So just give me some money and you can go.”
“No way! I want to speak to your superior!”
He points 50 meters down the road. His boss I can at least understand, but what follows is a very awkward discussion of about 30 minutes. About the Carnet, about poverty, about the police being my best friend. After every 5 minutes the senior officer asks the policeman if he’s satisfied with my answers. He clearly feels insulted and finally settles for “a cool water”.
“No problem. I’ll give you a whole bottle of nice, cool water from the fridge in my car.”
“Is it African cool water?”
“Yes, it’s African.”
The senior officer bends over to me and whispers in my ear:
“You know what is meant with cool water?”
“Of course I do. And it’s cool water or nothing. I’m not going to give you any money. Full stop!”
I ask him what kind of story he would like me to take back to Europe. The story of policemen who wave you through at checkpoints, wishing you a safe journey, or the policemen who are asking for a bribe. I take my papers from his hands and wish them a good day. When I drive off I see their dissatisfied faces in the mirror.

Things that broke

  • the gearbox (nuff said, no further comment except that the new one is working like a treat! My right shoulder is showing some serious and very painful signs of RSI, but that’s because of all the bad roads and the shifting of gears)
  • the zip of the rooftop tent cover (whoever designed that should be defenestrated)
  • the inverter (serious problem because of the many power cuts. So I bought a UPS, which does the same thing, in Freetown of all places)
  • the watertap on the back door (should able to fix it with right glue, I think)
  • the jerrycan holder on the side of the car (it’s completely bent after an accident in Liberia. More of that later)
bent jerrycan holder after accident Liberia

bent jerrycan holder after accident Liberia

 

zipper ro

zipper rooftop tent

new inverter installed

new inverter installed

broken water tap

broken water tap

 

 

Travels with or without Thimba

(unable to upload any photographs, so just text!)

Travels with or without Thimba
After Thimba’s suffering in the Fouta Djalon Mountains I stayed at the Tata hotel for three days. Luxury, airco, great apartment and even greater pizza’s!. Took time to clean out the car of (most of) the red dust, and got my clothes and bed linnen laundered. The route from Labé to Kindia and further on to Conya and to the Guinea-Sierra Leone border is potholed, but o.k..  I need to fuel up. The first fuel station has no diesel. The second one has, so I ask diesel for 600.000 francs. When the meter reaches 420.000 it stops. Empty. The Military Toyota pick-up waiting behind me is far from amused, and drives away aggressively.
The border crossing is again unique. On the Guinean side relaxed and more or less efficient. The Sierra Leone side is housed in a far too big new building donated by the EU: too many desks, too many officials, too many hassles! They even want me to pay for an import permit for Thimba, of course at my own discretion! After the border: Sierra Leone! Imagine, driving your car into Sierra Leone! Few people do, and I’m doing it! Lots of heads turned in villages, people waving and giving thumbs up! A few checkpoints, but they’re ever so friendly. At one checkpoint it’s “Hey, come and see this!” and they all gather around the car to ask questions about Thimba, the car, my travels, and me (usually in that order!). There’s a new road to Freetown (again, thank you EU), and I drive the last stretch to Bureh Beach (45 km south of Freetown) with 100 km/hr (well, that’s what the Land Rover indicates). I park the car right up on the beach with a view of the ocean. WOW!. I’m not much of a beach man, but this is fabulous! Quiet, relaxed, no hassle, and run by a couple of locals who call themselves the Beach Boys (what else?). Camping is 3,50 euro. Yes!

Travels without Thimba
I decide to put Thimba on a plane back to Holland, if that can be arranged. It takes a lot of internet research, calls, mails, text messages (THANKS MEES!!) to come to the conclusion that it’s practically impossible. After three days Bureh Beach I move to Freetown (staying at the Catholic Mission St. Edwards) to be able to talk to the agent myself, but it results in nothing but miscommunication and unanswered calls. I enjoy the days in Freetown, however. Andrew, of the mission, takes me into town, shows me the highlights and the slums. It’s a great city and on all my walks I feel completely comfortable and safe. I take a few motor taxis to the Liberian embassy, too  far to walk. They charge me 150 USD for a visa. Extortionists!
Now that it’s evident that sending back Thimba is not going to work, I create a new space for her on the front passenger seat, and I am going to travel on with her as far as Accra (Ghana) at least. I hope that it will be easier from there, KLM and Lufthansa having direct flight from there.. The test was yesterday (Freetown to Makeni) and today (Makeni to Bo, including 50 km of piste). She was still very uncomfortable, but at least I got her to lie down, even during the the bad piste. It took some very forceful corrections (not my usual way of dealing with her), but it worked: don’t try harder, try different!

Sierra Leone
Last year only 8.000 tourists visited Sierra Leone, and most of them stayed at the beaches. It’s hard to imagine that this beautiful country and friendly people were only recently involved in one of the most cruel civil wars. I am having a long conversation with Mohammed, the manager of the hotel in Makeni where I’m staying. He’s a 38 year-old American-Sierra Leonian (degree in chemistry) who spent the war years in the USA. Perhaps that’s why he talks so openly about the after-war problems. When I return to my room I write down the following:

- education: people are not used to think  long term (and education is!). How do I survive the next day is what counts.

- Young girls: as soon as they’re 14-15 and have breasts they are supposed to bring in some money or gifts. I was “offered” a young girl: “Do you like her?” She can’t have been more than 13!

- There are programs for the amputees “Short-sleeve or long-sleeve” was the choice you had for your hand cut off, or your arm.  But here’s a whole generation traumatized by this insane war. And no psychological help to speak of. One of Mohammed’s employees saw her husband killed in an indescribable brutal manner and afterwards raped for days on end. She now has a “rape-child” to take care of, and the rapist is still living in the village. How do you cope with that?

When the war was over and the question was raised: “what was it all about?”, no one had an answer. Perhaps that’s the most disgusting and intriguing of it all.

And to end in a positive mood, with an idea that really would get this country going forward: confiscate all these luxury NGO Toyota SUV’s tomorrow!

p.s I met Martin, Max and Philip again in Freetown, and I’m sure we’ll meet again! I also met Jonathan, a biker from the UK who is taking it very slowly towards Cape Town. I still owe him some money, so we’ll definitely see each other again soon. Maybe linking up to cross Nigeria and DRC. Looking forward to that!

When the going gets rough: the Fatou Djalon mountains of Guinea

The Fouta Djalon Mountains
After all the carnival festivities, which culminated in the big parade yesterday, the city is very quiet early in the morning at 7.30. I’m heading for the Fouta Djalon mountains, together with my German friends Max, Martin and Philipp in their beautiful Mitsubishi 4×4 campervan. The first part towards Guda is pretty easy. Some checkpoints, but without exception very friendly. Some of them not even wanting to see any papers, just a chat. The border crossing between Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry is also hassle free and relaxed. For the first time the douane officer wants to see Thimba’s documents. When he studies Thimba’s passport he wants to know why it hasn’t been stamped when entering Guinea Bissau in Sao Domingo. I say they weren’t really interested. He remains a bit suspicious, but after some hesitation hands me back the documents and advises me to “present” the dog for inspection at all borders! So a bit further down the road, at the Conakry douane, I “present” Thimba to the officer by pointing at her (she’s lying next to the car in the shade), asking whether he wants to check her papers. He looks through the window, then at me as if I have just made him an indecent proposal, and says: “C’est pas nécessaire!”.

We drive through a very charming landscape with typical round huts.

beauti

beautiful round hut

We stop in a small village for a late lunch, rice with a sauce and a plastic little bag with water. I pay 3 euros for the four of us. Everywhere we stop we gather a crowd of mainly children. They all want to look at Thimba, ask questions like “What does she eat?” (Thimba is so big compared to African

lots of attention

lots of attention

IMG_0396

Auberge Afilat, Koundara

dogs, she must be on a special diet). In the meantime the road gets worse with a lot of potholes and we cover the 325 kilometers in 8 hours. We stay at the Auberge Afilat in Koundara. A large secluded compound with a family, chicken, goats. Very basic, no running water (bucket shower), no electricity. When it gets dark I fit my outside LED lamp to the sand ladders, and read a Sierra Leone novel on my iPad,while the mother of the family is preparing an evening meal for her husband and children, almost completely in the dark. Two very different worlds.

We leave Koundara next morning to drive the first 50 kilometers on a newly sealed road. But this is the day of the 200 km. Koundara-Labé piste. Right at the start we arrive at a picturesque bridge and prepare 4 cameras to film the crossing: that’s one of the nice things about traveling with others (apart of course from the pleasant company and the safety in case of a breakdown): filming with more than one camera and different perspectives. We have a GoPro attached to the bridge, one on the Land Rover, a DSLR for the broader picture, and my Canon video camera at the end of the bridge. This will take some editing (what fun!). For now, all I can offer is a very short teaser, but you get the idea!

no zebra crossing

no zebra crossing

eating dust!

eating dust!

bad piste in beautiful scenery

bad piste in beautiful scenery

We enjoy the intensity of the colours in the early hours. The lively green of the trees against the cold blue of the  ky, and the warm red of the earth. Driving is very slow, mostly in 2nd gear. It’s like rock crawling. A couple of times we are overtaken by old, local Peugeot station wagons with 6 or 7 passengers in it and an enormous load – and extra passengers – on the roof. We pass some villages, people wave at us and put up their thumbs. Again a few checkpoints, but all very friendly.

Philipp and Martin negotiating the price for some food and drinks

Philipp and Martin negotiating the price for some food and drinks

One of the policemen even gives us a mango. Says Max: “That’s the first time we’ve been given a present instead of them asking for one!”.
We arrive at a manual ferry. A picture post card one, so beautiful! It’s operated by two men who pull the barge along a steel cable, and you have to drive through the water to get on an off it. Philipp prepares the quadrocopter with the GoPro to shoot some video from the air (I know, poor students travelling through Africa with a quadrocopter…). The reaction of the people on the barge when they see the copter taking off! We don’t think they realize there’s a video camera attached to it! Great fun for all on the barge during the short crossing! Again a very short teaser, quick and dirty!

A lady dangerously in distress
In the meantime the long and bumpy ride in the tropical heat (my estimate: 35 c.) is taking its toll on Thimba. It’s very hot in the car (my estimate: 40 c.) and because I’m driving low speed there’s no wind. She doesn’t lie down (too stressed) so uses her four feet as shock absorbers. Very tiring, and she’s panting like mad. She should drink water when I stop, but she doesn’t; again, probably too stressed. I’m beginning to get really really worried about her body temperature. During the many stops she immediately heads for the shade and just lies there. I consider resting till dark, but it would take until long after dark for the temperature to drop a bit, and the condition of the piste would remain the same. Besides, driving in the dark, constantly navigating around holes and rocks, would be asking for other  trouble! So I drive on and during the frequent stops I cover her up with towels and throw not too cold water over her (thanks for the fridge!). This gives her some relief, but she is beginning to look really bad now. Her eyelids are swollen and a rosé colour. When I try to get her back into the car after a rest, I have to carry her into the car.

Img 1916

Poor Thimba!

Poor girl, she’s suffering and just wants to lie down. The pleasure that I experienced during the first hours on the piste is completely gone. I don’t notice the beautiful mountain scenery anymore. All I ‘m concerned about now is how to keep Thimba’s body temperature under control. I have still got 60 km. of very bad piste ahead of me. With each patch of flatter surface I hope it will remain like that for some time, but around the corner it’s back to 2nd gear again.

Then all of a sudden the piste ends and there’s a broad gravel road! The Chinese are building a new road from Koundara to Labé! I had never thought I would be grateful to the Chinese road builders in Africa, but now I am, wholeheartedly, and I wave at the few Chinese I see at the side of the road. I turn around to look at Thimba in the back of the car and I feel the tears  rolling down my cheeks. I drive the 50 km. to Labé and check in at the Tata hotel. Oh joy, to see Thimba on a cool stone floor, fast asleep after what must have been a nightmare for her.