If you consult the FCO on Guinea it will tell you that there is rampant corruption, police exploitation, high risk of car jacking and criminals dressed as military with guns ready to take everything you have on every corner.
The FCO clearly has never been to Guinea!
We were concerned about entering this country, after the corruption we found in Guinea-Bissau we felt as though we were travelling deeper and deeper into the underbelly of Africa where lawlessness and exploitation rule. How wrong we were!
Steve advised us that the border we were crossing was reputed to be corrupt and difficult. Even the officials checking us out of Guinea-Bissau said they would only let us go with a re-entry visa because so many people fail to be allowed into Guinea at that checkpoint and are forced to return.
You can imagine the tension amongst the group as we drove the half kilometer from there to the Guinean border post.
What we were faced with instead was a border almost entirely deserted expect for a few very polite, efficient and professional border guards. Our passports and visas were carefully checked and stamped. We were saluted, welcomed and wished well on our way. James and I looked at each not quite sure whether we could let out our breath yet or not.
The answer was yes, a big, deep sigh of relief! Any time now and for the rest of our wonderful trip through the beautiful and remarkable country of Guinea.
Despite the title of this blog and the breath-taking waterfalls Guinea is famous for, the most lasting memory we will take away with us of these few days is the roads! Well, I say roads…..
This is the main road, the N9, from the border to the city of Labe.
We used to spend a lot of money and drive thousands of miles to find tracks like this when we were doing our off-road trips in the past. Here, it´s the only road from here to anywhere!
Gone were the pot-holed, cratered tarmac roads of Guinea-Bissau, in fact gone were anything that most people would call roads at all!
It was fun, great fun, but there´s more to it than that. Some of you might have already experienced the difference a road make to the atmosphere and culture of a place – take the Western Sahara for instance. Thousands of miles of nothing but desert and power stations but having a good, tarmac road through it makes it feel souless and very dull. Take that same environment and put a dust road through it and suddenly you have adventure, remoteness and interest. A road makes everything feel connected, safe, civilised.
None of these words can be used to describe the vast majority of Guinea. The north west area of the country feels like a place that time forgot, a people that are so far removed from our world that you simply cannot comprehend how they live.
We passed by village after village built of thatched huts with nothing but dirt and dust tracks to walk on.
We must have passed a handful of trucks and a few motorbikes in 4 hours. Pedestrians, however, were around in their hundreds.
Women walking for miles with their wares on their heads, children wearing nothing but T-shirts down to their knees that the likes of you and I donated to a charity shop many years ago. Men so thin yet muscular from the shear relentless work involved in scraping a living out here.
Yet all of them smiling, chatting, braiding each other´s hair. The kids running around chasing wheels with sticks – yes really!
Everyone we met looked at us in astonishment. We have become used to bemused smiles and waves but here there was a difference that was hard to put my finger on. It was as though the people didn´t really know what we were or what we were doing – as though the idea of visitors was incomprehensible to them.
Time after time after time we passed people who stared motionless at us. We smiled and waved and they just continued to stare without any response. Then, every single time, after a pause of some seconds, their faces broke into the most beautiful smiles that lit up the whole world – and they waved. Enthusiastically, beautifully, happily – almost, I sometimes thought, with some relief that we had turned out to just be friendly tourists.
I have never met people with such beautiful smiles as the people of Guinea. I couldn´t help but fall in love with every single one of them – men, women, children, without fail. The memory of one woman will stay with me forever – a bag three times her own size on her head, rags on her body, leaning bent forward at the waist with a huge, open smile, waving with both hands at us as though we were her long lost family.
The first few days here were an experience full of emotion – humbling, enlightening, warming the soul. These people who have absolutely nothing of value in the western world have everything of any real value and generously shared it with us.
After a few hours of driving we strangely hit one of the best tarmac roads we had seen since leaving The Gambia! It didn´t last long but whilst we were on it we started to pass through numerous small towns. Each one appeared on the surface to be identical – a long road with shacks either side selling everything and nothing. Colourful, busy, chaotic.
And motorbikes….thousands and thousands of motorbikes. Most of them taxis. The taxi riders wore orange vests with their registered numbers on. No-one wore helmets, leathers or anything remotely safe! At first we couldn´t work out how accidents weren´t happening all the time but as we got used to the crush we started to see that the same friendliness and consideration as we had seen elsewhere worked here as well – yes it was chaos but everyone knew the rules. In fact I would go so far as to say that drivers and riders in African towns and cities are far better than in the western world. They have eyes everywhere, they can get within millimeters of another vehicle and judge it so accurately they never hit. They beep not in anger but simply to let you know they´re there and you´re supposed to let them be there. There are rules – different rules to what we know but once you know them they´re quite friendly, and they work! Once we had got used to this and stopped being the problem on the road things became a lot less difficult for everyone!
We must have passed through three checkpoints throughout our whole time in Guinea, by far the least since we arrived in Africa. Everyone was professional, friendly and easy – so much for corruption and exploitation being rife! We were saluted regularly, help and advice was given, smiles and friendly surprise that we had driven so far to come and see them. Occasionally we were pointed at with an exclamation ´Tourists, tourists!!´
We were definitely in the tropics now. The landscape is lush and green. We woke up to wet mists in the mornings and the humidity was starting to rise just a little….just enough!
We continued our trek towards the town of Labe near the many waterfalls and hikes which bring the few tourists to this country. We had been driving behind the truck for a couple of hours and our view didn´t change much throughout that time….
So we decided to overtake them and go on ahead for a while. There was only one road, we were not likely to lose them and the Landrover is buiilt for roads like this, the truck is not. We could have a lot more fun going at our own pace without dust constantly in our faces and filters. So off we went. Every half an hour or so we´d pull up, eat some fruit, stretch our legs and wait for them to appear. Three or four times they appeared remarkably quickly. Then they didn´t…..
We waited for what seemed like an age. Still no truck. So we turned around and headed back to see what had happened. No truck, anywhere. We went back further than the point at which we had last seen them. Still no truck. We tried going up the only small road off the main track but it wasn´t big enough for the truck to fit through so was a non-starter. We were bemused – this is a large, 8 wheeler, bright orange truck, it can´t just disappear. We drove back to where we started, going over and over the case of the missing truck – options were considered and rejected. Unless they had somehow fallen off the edge there was no sensible explanation – but there was no wreckage anywhere.
Just as we were a minute from the tarmac road we had orignally stopped at we saw four familiar people standing on the track waving and smiling at us. It took a couple of seconds to compute, it was so incongruous! They had found a tiny track off the main route with a lagoon at the end to fill their depleted water tanks. Someone had been posted on the road to wave us down when we inevitably returned looking for them but that person had stepped off the road for a second just as we whizzed by!
We were relieved to see them and be reunited, and lunch was waiting for us, but it wasn´t the first time they had lost us and something told us it wouldn´t be the last!
Evenutally we arrived in Labe and were staying in an actual guest house!
It was lovely and we stayed two nights giving time to relax for a day, get some laundry done, buy data and currency and generally laze about. They served pizza – just pizza – so we had it two nights running! Ooops!
I ventured into the town the first day whilst James gave Henry some much needed TLC – dirt roads are a Landrover´s best friend, clouds of dust all day every day are not! He was not looking quite how he should!
The town was typical of what we were getting used to in west Africa – shacks and low rise buildings stacked high with produce, dusty, noisy, chaotic. But something was different in Guinea. The stalls all sold the same things and the selection was limited. Guinea is a country that has very little – fruit and veg is scarce, variety is not something they see. If you want bread, rice, potatoes, chocolate spread you´ll be ok. You can buy covers for your smart phone hundreds of times over but try and get a SIM card and you´re faced with confused stares.
James was a bit down as he wasn´t feeling great and Henry needed some work, so he needed cheering up with chocolate, crisps and beer. In most African towns you can find some variety of all these things – not generally what you would see at home but something. At worst you find the expensive minimarket or even an international shop – small and badly stocked – but here there was nothing. For two hours I went from stall to stall with two others from the group, all of us dedicated to cheering James up, asking for help, directions, suggestions. Blank stares greeted us, shaking of heads.
We eventually found a Total fuel station selling chocolate and Pringles but still no beer. Maps.me said there was something called ´Liquorstore´ 1km away so, despite it now being dusk, the three of us marched off. It got darker and darker, one of our party was hit by a passing motorbike on his arm, we started to attract more attention from the locals and evenutally our trek took us to a part of town which didn´t feel quite so friendly. And no Liquorstore, it just didn´t exist – we started asking around before realising we were in the Muslim part of town so gave up and spent the next half an hour walking the back streets of Labe in the dark trying to find our way back to the guest house.
I was pleased to arrive back unscathed, James was sitting at the bar drinking a cold beer……!
The next day we headed out of town towards the KinKon Waterfall. As we approached we found the road barriered off by the military with an interesting guard warning us to halt!
They were friendly but wanted payment for visiting the falls and camping overnight. It was a small amount of money, we were happy to contribute to the country´s economy and it was well worth every penny.
The falls were gorgeous, the water freezing – but for the first time in many, many years, I jumped in and swam, twice in fact! James even climbed up the rocks and jumped into the pool from a fair height.
We shared our spot with some huge wildlife!
All in all it was a lovely day and a peaceful night wild camping.
From there we drove on to the town of Dalabe. Again, this town consisted of very little and provided almost nothing in terms of provisions. We wandered about for a while but there was little to do or see other than getting our cushions mended for less than a Euro!
We headed out towards the Ditenn Waterfall and another wild camp.
When we arrived at a good camping spot close to the falls most people headed straight off to hike to see them. We had only gone a short distance when two local women appeared and started gesturing us to follow them. We really had no idea where we were going so we thought we´d see where they took us.
At first it was through thick, tall grasses, then some small water crossings and eventually they darted into dense vegetation.
Curious, we continued to follow them, laughing about the fact they were clearly trying to get the tourists lost so they could charge us large amounts to get us back. But after a while it started to be less funny. The vegetation got more and more dense, the footings slippery, the drops deeper. At one point we could hardly see the person in front or behind and were pushing through branches and vines in real danger of losing our way and becoming seperated from the rest. My claustrophobia suddenly kicked in, I screamed ´James……´ his face appeared a few yards behind me, he could see me but couldn´t get to me round the other people between us. I was shaking, the world was spinning, I couldn´t see more than a foot in any direction. I yelled I had to go back, I needed to get out, James pointed out we had no way to find our way back, we had to go forward. Interestingly, being faced with no options, sense prevailed and some sort of calm reinstated itself in my brain. I pushed on, and on, and on. I lost sight of anyone else but those ahead were calling so the rest of us could follow their voices.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, we heard rushing water and could see down a shear drop to a fast-moving river. We were supposed to scramble down but I initially refused – I could see no way back up again. But those in front went down and carried on walking away so I had no choice but to slip and slide down the bank, helped by some of the group at the bottom.
As we arrived at the water we saw that we were actually at the top of the waterfall, not where we had wanted or intended to be at all. The others had taken their shoes off and were wading towards the edge. It looked beautiful. James said ´There you go, wasn´t that worth it?´. ´No´ I replied emphatically and rather grumpily.
We waded out to the very edge of the 400m falls and looked out across the forests, the water plummetting down below us. One of the group had brought his drone and took photos from above. ´Now it´s worth it´ I breathed with a small smile.
That night we tried to sleep whilst the locals celebrated their tour money with music and laughter. None of us minded one bit.
Our next country was to be Sierra Leone and for the first time we would need a PCR test to cross the border. The next day was therefore spent in the hospital of the small town of Momou getting 20 tests done. Whilst we were there, one of the group had a procedure done to remove a very painful cyst in his eye – they did it there and then, very professionally and charged €50. Something tells me there are things we can learn from this country!
The hospital itself, however, was hot, dirty and depressing. We were told that if anyone tested positive they would be quarantined there for 10 days, people were scared….!
No-one did test positive however, and after a night in the dirtiest, roughest hotel I have ever seen we headed off the next morning towards the border.
The roads changed on this leg. Still dirt, dust roads, painfully slow and choking Henry with thick, unrelenting dust, but much of the route was bad because they were carrying out extensive road works which would make a huge difference in a few years time. As it was, right now, the roads were full of lorries, hundreds and hundreds of lorries, making the whole, long day tortuous and frustrating.
We drove long after dark, eventually pulling over in a field at 10pm, far too late for any dinner, and so we just ate some biscuits and fruit and fell into bed.
The next day we were up at 4:45am and finally arrived at the Sierra Leone border at 9am.
Guinea is a very special country, full of beautiful people and pristine landscapes. It filled me with a sense of calm and well-being which I had lost over the last few days. If we could have stayed longer we definitely would but we were heading to our next destination and more adventures. Travelling too quickly for sure but with our eyes on the prize of reaching Southern Africa…….