We are talking and planning the road ahead. Meeting south going travellers with their fountains of advice and information. We sit in the comfort of the city of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire and plan our route north towards Senegal. We hear more fear stories. We are told we face a choice. Head north across Cote d’Ivoire and up into Mali or north west into Guinea? The former route has its threats of terror attacks and potential hijacking of our cruiser. The latter route has its fair share of civil strife around a push by the president to amend the constitution and have an election to secure a hitherto unconstitutional third term in office. Which way do we go? It weighs on the mind. Civil strife versus terror attacks. Hard choice.
We decide that civil unrest and the potential of being blocked by security forces and re-routed over hundreds of kilometres on tough slow roads beats a potential hijacking hands down. And we are comforted in the thought that we did a Mali tour to Timbuktu some years ago. No need to repeat Mali. Not this time anyway. So it’s an easy choice to do Guinea route and drive north west on a good road to the border.
Crossing into Guinea is an eye opener. The country looks run down and poor. Reminds us of DRC. But poverty is now more complex than before. It’s hard to measure. What standard to use. Desperately poor when measured against the wealthy nations of the world. Yet not significantly poorer than the poorest of any other country in Africa. And if happy and content and low carbon footprint were a measure of progress, then African poor countries would measure up against the best. So it’s hard to know whether what we deem as poor is a virtue or a curse. Because the people of Guinea are poor, yet everyone appears happy, and settled and at peace with themselves and all about them. And this is despite a rage in the country against the president for seeking to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term in office. We read of protests in Lomé and Conakry, but through the villages there is no evidence of any political campaigning. The countryside seems untouched by the actual or imagined turbulence in the cities.
But still the fear and uncertainty are there inside us. We have met overlanders at the border crossing into Guinea who tell tales of being blocked and turned back by security forces. Having to re-route themselves on a round trip of an extra 200kms of the most awful roads to traverse the country. And that with a security official in their vehicle. So we are concerned that the same could happen to us. And we thinking and talking as we drive. What to believe? What not? Maybe the security force action was to prevent any picture being taken of protest action. Maybe its state sponsored paranoia. Maybe the people are all cool and have a right to protest anyway. It’s not about us. Its about their civil issues. Maybe. Just maybe. Its hard to decide. Whci way to go ? Keep the Guinee road or head to Sierra Leone.
We check the Garmin and see the track to the Sierra Leone border branching west as we pass Faranah in Guinea. It’s a forty kilometre off road track to reach the border from the main Guinee north road. But we have no visa. And we drive a right-hand drive vehicle that is banned in Sierra Leone. And we have tried for weeks with back and forth emails to get an exception from the sierra leone tourist association to drive our right hand drive car that has produced nothing but promises. So it look like a long shot. But maybe, just maybe, they will let us through. You never know. We decide to risk it and just go for it. See what happens. Trust our instincts and goodwill. Literally as we reach the Sierra Leone track we turn left and head west on a small dirt road. Not really sure if we are running from a fear of Guinean instability or a fantasy of Sierra Leone freedom. Either way the road is beckoning us and we are following the road.
The track is long and slow. But it is certain and takes us through quaint villages and beautiful countryside to the border crossing. The Guinea exit is hot and slow but smooth. Then we in no mans land. Cruising through open tracks and monitoring a border destination. The Sierra Leone arrival is even smoother than the Guinee exit. As we arrive we are asked to wash our hands before greeting anyone. Just out of tradition we think. The coronavirus is that far from our consciousness. We are welcomed by the officials like long lost brothers from the south. Reggae music hums in the African midday heat. They tell us that because they are a small remote border they are not authorised to issue visas, but they will make a plan to put an immigration official into our car to accompany us over an 80km journey to the first major town of Kabbalah. From Kabbalah we will get a temporary permit that will see us through to Freetown where a visa can be obtained. We happily agree and the official takes the passenger seat alongside me and Lou is perched in the gangway at the back of the Troopy. The road is long and slow. But we are excited to be breaking new ground into a country that we never even imagined we would get into.
Kabbalah is a quaint and beautiful small town in northern Sierra Leone. It houses the office of the regional immigrations command. Our travel companion takes us straight to the office where we are greeted and welcomed by a certain Mr Crosby who stamped our passports for a 48hr period in which we are told to obtain our visas in Freetown. And he gives us an official letter to say we are authorized to cross the country. And the letter is stamped with the same stamp as is in our passport. A kinda double security he says. He even phones his colleague in Freetown to introduce us over the phone and to say we are coming for our visas. And we are free to go. Blessed Africa.
We overnight at a B&B called Wendays which is clean and neat with a cold shower and toilet in the hills of Kabbalah. Whilst there we meet an Italian man doing good social work to empower women for an NGO. For the first time we hear of the corona virus from our Italian friend. He tells tales of how his wife was in Abidjan searching for a flight home. How there is a virus in northern Italy that came from China. We think: poor souls and scarcely give it any further thought. The next day we drive to Freetown. All the way down officials at checkpoints welcome us as the South Africans without visas and flag us on. They have been told we are coming.
It’s an easy road to drive. And it feels like a kinda homecoming of sorts to drive into the legendary Freetown. The road widens as we get into the outskirts of the city and then narrows as it weaves into the built-up zone of the Freetown downtown area. Since Garmin takes you the most direct route, without consideration to on street life, we get seriously stuck for a few hours or more in the people dense markets on the back streets of Freetown city. We find ourselves locked into a series of street markets. People are everywhere. Its dense and colourful and loud. Everywhere is a buzz of traders and customers selling everything from Chinese plastics to colourful Sierra Leone fabrics. We roll with the masses. Creeping along at walking speed. It feels safe and good. People smile and wave or simply ignore us. Our cruiser weaves slowly and gently through the phalanx of people and colour and sounds and smells. We can’t believe our good fortune to be legal in Sierra Leone driving a right-hand drive vehicle with no visa in our passports. It feels all wrong. This was all meant to be impossible. But it feels appropriate. This is Africa and everything is possible. All you need is time. And we are taking our time. We don’t really have a choice.
We find a small hot room with occasional weak aircon on Lumley Beach Road. It’s a base from which we visit the city sights and immigration office to get our visa in the centre of Freetown. Our visits to immigration and a certain customs official take the first three days. Back and forth we go through the streets of Freetown. All good : we have Sierra Leone visas in our passport. We are legal in a country which said we would always be illegal. Feeling free we decide to head out to the beaches to the south of Freetown. Find the surf spots and camp out for a week or so. We need to walk and swim and surf a bit. Meet village locals and fellow overlanders. So we head to Bureh Beach…a known overland and surfers paradise some 100kms south of city.