A belated Merry Christmas and very Happy New Year to everyone! Who can believe we have reached the end of 2021 and the start of 2022 already, and what a roller coaster ride it has been!
Sadly we had some of the worst internet connection of our trip over the festive season so family calls and blogging have been seriously lacking.
Where and how we celebrated Christmas was a moving feast right up until the night of Christmas Eve – would it be Sierra Leone, Tiwai Island or Liberia?? But I´m jumping the gun, let´s back track as we left the last blog heading for the Sierra Leone border and there were fireworks and surprises aplenty between there and Christmas Day!
We arrived at the border tired and dusty from two long days of driving some pretty grim roads out of Guinea. However walking from the Guinea check out post to the Sierra Leone check in cheered us up for two reasons – firstly, we checked out in French but Sierra Leone is English speaking and suddenly life became a whole lot easier. Secondly, Sierra Leone is around 25% Christian and they celebrate Christmas! For the first time we were wished a happy Christmas, there were Christmas songs playing in the office and the border officials had collection boxes for their Christmas party. It brought smiles to our faces, it was 19th December and Christmas had just started. I was even caught dancing to Jingle Bells whilst waiting for the carnet to be stamped and they thought I was slightly mad!
The border was friendly and easy right up until it´s illegal to drive a right hand drive vehicle in the country. We waited for nearly two hours, eating bananas, securing local SIM cards and sweltering in the heat before the head honcho on the phone finally gave the all clear for us to leave the border. Don´t ask how, no money changed hands, I just think they´d rather not have a truck load of tourists crying at the border 5 days before Christmas!
As we drove into our new country it was clear that the people here have a lot more than the people of Guinea. They were well dressed, fruit and veg was plentful, the roads were good and I was struck by the vibrant colours everywhere.
All the police and army checkpoints greeted us with ´compliments of the season´, towns and street markets had Christmas songs playing, it seemed the perfect place to celebrate.
But we were heading for the busy capital of Freetown and shades of Dakar were on our minds. We were still 25km away when the traffic started to get heavy and slow. The plan was to try and secure the Nigerian, Ghanian and Togo visas so it was going to be a long stay – we were keen to learn lessons from Dakar and try to find something to enjoy whilst we were there.
As we approached the centre of the city, the noise, music, traffic and people all melded together to assualt the senses. Cute little Tuk Tuks were everywhere, brightly coloured and with personalised slogans written on the back and sides. It was fun.
The truck took a wrong turn, we followed so as not to lose them, and we ended up slowly pushing our way through a busy and colourful market. People had to move themselves and their wares out of our way to allow us to pass. We had some mumblings about tourists but generally people were gracious, appearing pleased to see us, laughing and waving at the grinning faces peering out from the top of a huge orange bus!
We finally arrived at the YMCA, our home for the next 5 days. We found Henry a spot right outside the gates so we could keep an eye on him, but it was far from secure. The YMCA itself was basic but relatively clean. Sadly our ensuite room had been kept by the previous occupant for another night so we were sharing a toilet and shower with 20 other people. Somehow it seemed different from sharing on a campsite and after seeing a spider the size of my hand sitting on a water bucket outside our room I was not the happiest person on the planet!
We walked out with a few others to try and find food and ended up in a bakingly hot fried chicken cafe. I was feeling ill from dehydration and feared our Freetown experience would indeed be another Dakar. Things went from bad to worse. As we arrived back at the YMCA the staff advised us to take everything off the outside of Henry as otherwise it would be gone by morning and the church opposite was having a very, very loud party which carried on until 5am – our room was shaking. Even if it had been quiet we wouldn´t have had a wink of sleep all night as we spent most of the time looking out of the window at Henry whilst cars pulled up, men walked round him, kids loited about. I was all for packing up and driving away – anywhere, any cost, at the end of the day Henry is our home and our life, if we lost him or he was damaged the cost of an expensive hotel with security would be small fry.
So on very little sleep and a lot of disquiet, we were up early the next morning and heading off to the Liberian embassy. Before we left, however, the manager of the YMCA came to see us and suggested we checked Henry because there had been some ´bad boys´ around last night. He was fine but we were increasingly rattled.
We drove Henry away to the Liberian embassy rather than getting a cab just to keep him safe. Liberia ended up being a quick stop, visas provided whilst we waited – much celebration! Then on to Nigeria – the big one….you may recall from our Senegal blog that we waited five days for a Nigerian visa in Dakar only to find it expired before we are even due to get to the country.
Whilst some of us went to the Nigerian embassy to scout them out others went to Ghana – the other difficult visa, really only available from your home country but we had all been advised it could be secured enroute. Nigeria were being quite helpful, we were sitting quietly waiting in an air conditioned room when the others arrived with news – all land borders in and out of Ghana are closed and have been for nearly 2 years since the start of the COVID pandemic. There is, apparently, no prospect of them reopening any time soon.
To say there was stunned silence is no exaggeration.
We all looked at each other, we looked at Steve, we looked at a map. Steve contacted the people who own the tour company – the borders had been closed for eighteen months before they even sent us all on this trip, what was their plan? The answer came back in seconds – the plan is to drive around Ghana through Burkina Faso.
Burkina Faso. Along with the majority of the northern Sahel region, it is a lawless country. There is no functioning government or police. Al-Queida and ISIS are active in the area. There have been regular kidnappings and shootings of locals and Westerners alike and terrorist activity is a part of everyday life.
Burkina Faso. With no rule of law gangs can hold up vehicles on the long, lonely roads with AK47s and impunity to take what they want, including your life if they feel so inclined.
When we left on this trip I promised my Mum we were not travelling to put our lives at risk nor to become war-tourists. We travel to enjoy the beauty and friendliness that is 99% of what the world has to offer. There is no way on this earth that we are taking ourselves or Henry through Burkina Faso.
But no matter how long we stared at that map, there was no other way around.
Mauritania and Morocco´s borders had also been closed for 18 months prior to our trip starting – something else the tour we had joined were unaware of at the time. They had reopened for three weeks at exactly the time we nipped through and reclosed again behind us. We had often talked about how incredibly lucky we had been to get through. But now, unless Ghana relented, we were firmly stuck – no way forwards, no way back.
Sadly, Steve had his orders and was going to Burkina Faso. He would keep trying to secure Ghana visas and permission to cross through but if he failed he would indeed drive his big, bright orange, tourist truck that attracts so much attention throughout Africa through Burkina Faso. It would be a seven day detour from Abidjan on the south coast of Cote D´Ivoire, north into Burkina Faso, along the top of Ghana and back down into Togo. The rest of the group could choose to either join him or fly over and meet him in Togo – or Benin, NIgeria, Cameroon, wherever they chose.
We were not so lucky. Henry doesn´t fit into an aeroplane seat, even with his sunglasses on……
Most people continued on and applied for their Nigerian visas. They are expensive and as we had already found out, not always useful. We had lost confidence in the tour so declined to spend more money in the vague hope Ghana would allow us safe passage. Instead we drove Henry out to the Oasis Juice Bar and Guest house, recommended by Lonely Planet for good food, peace and quiet. There we hoped to formulate a plan and wait for others to join us for lunch once the Nigerian applications had been made.
By this time, after so many days on the dusty roads of Guinea, Henry was filthy. All his hinges cracked and squealed whenever we opened a door and we were permanently filthy from the dirt rubbing off on us whenever we went near him.
So we tried to get him washed enroute to Oasis. We found only one car wash and they wanted €40 just to rinse him down, we declined, gave up and carried on to Oasis.
Oasis was indeed an oasis of calm and tranquility. A large, secure car park, garden, balcony for dining. We could feel the pressure of the city lifting. The owner, Momma Gladys came to chat to us and was a lovely human being. The food was great. But we still had no solution to the Ghana problem, it looked as though we were going to have to give up on our overland adventure and ship Henry directly to Southern Africa after all.
As we were leaving James started chatting to one of the guys who runs Oasis and asked him if he knew of somewhere we could wash Henry. He offered to do it for us with their hose pipe. We gratefully accepted the offer and spent the next 2.5 hours doing just that. James helped with the washing whilst I spent the time, with some help from my sister back home, trying to find out how we go about shipping from Sierra Leone to Namibia.
James was very successful, I was not! Shipping is very difficult, knowing who to trust is almost impossible and costs are sky high. Even our flights out of Freetown to meet Henry at the other end were coming out at around €2,000 each!
But Gladys and her team were lovely, so lovely in fact that we didn´t want to leave. So we didn´t! We had moved all our stuff into the ensuite at the YMCA that morning and felt obliged to go back that night, however Gladys very kindly allowed us to leave Henry behind the secure doors at Oasis and we booked in to stay ourselves for the three nights afterwards. Things were looking up – at least in the short term.
The next day we jumped into a tuk tuk and headed towards the Ghana embassy. We sat in their offices explaining our situation, that we were stuck, that we had been given wrong information before we left on our trip and that we needed their help with borders closed in front and behind us. They were very sympathetic and kind but there was nothing they could do. It seems we were facing two problems – closed borders was only one of them, the other is that you cannot get a Ghana visa at all apart from in your home country. We had been advised by the tour company not to get any visas prior to departure as all of them would and could be secured enroute. We were increasingly concerned about who we were travelling with!
After trying our best at Ghana to no avail we dashed across the road to the British High Commission to see whether they could offer stranded British citizens any help. They wouldn´t even let us in! The Commissioner was out apparently, we could try again tomorrow. We decided not to bother!
We headed back to a supermarket we had found the day before near the Nigerian embassy to get something for lunch and ended up sitting on the steps outside eating ice cream and fruit. The fruit had been bought from a lady with a stall on the street. We sat next to her for an hour or so – we overpaid for a coconut, she gave us free bananas, we shared the coconut with her and her daughters, she gave us free water. Her Mum arrived with sesame and ground nut cookies – we bought four each and they gave us a couple more. Neither of us said much to each other but it was companionable and just nice.
Eventually two of our friends arrived and we flagged down a taxi to the Chimpanzee sanctuary just out of town. Not a zoo, as they kept telling us, a sanctuary for rescuing Chimps who had been kept in homes (which is now illegal) and rehabilitating them into the wild.
It was interesting and absorbing, I was attacked by three large ants all of whom wanted to burrow into my boot and James carefully didn´t tell me about the jumping spiders until afterwards! But we had to wear masks all the time even though we were outside as Chimps are so close to humans they can catch a multitude of diseases from us – including COVID. And they are really, really human!
Our next stop was the Freetown Mall, a perfect example of where Westerners go to buy expensive things from home! We spent a fortune buying each other Christmas presents of port, gin, chocolate and wine but who cares, we were at least pretending Christmas would be a thing this year!
That evening we had seven friends over from the YMCA to Oasis for dinner. Gladys was happy, we were all happy. Ghana and Burkina Faso could wait until another day….
We slept well that night in a huge bed with mosquito net and a huge fan circling above us – it was cool, comfortable and quiet.
By now we had taken ourselves away from the rest of the group both in terms of location and mentally as well. The chances of us continuing on this trip were low, we expected to be saying goodbye to them when they left Freetown as we needed to ship and Freetown seemed like the best option. We had a lazy morning, lunch at the lovely Crown Bakery in town then a tuk tuk to the lighthouse on the peninsula followed by a slow walk down the beautilful beach ending in Italian ice cream. We shared our day with the two friends we had gone to see the Chimps with, they too were planning to leave the group soon and we had become good friends.
As dusk settled we needed to get off the beaches, pretty as they are they´re not too safe at night. We jumped into tuk tuks again and headed to a food festival down town.
We didn´t buy any food as the ice cream had filled us up, but it was a fascinating couple of hours wandering around. The music, colours, smells.
I was fascinated by the signs, written in Creole and so close to English but not quite! The medicine stall sold some very interesting potions!
No-one paid us anything but friendly attention, the guy who saw me trying to call James back when we took a different turn jumped up and grabbed him for me. The guy who scared the life out of me on the floor of the ladies toilets in the dark was only cleaning them and was full of apologies for frightening me, holding the door open and telling me it was all ok!
All in all, our visit to Freetown was nothing like Dakar, in fact we quite enjoyed it. It marked a sea-change in our plans and our relationship with the group but the city itself cannot be blamed for that!
It is a city of two halves. Expensive cars, the Freetown Mall, lovely guest houses, cafes and restaurants intermigle with desperate poverty. We were stopped regularly by people needing money, followed down the street by well spoken folks telling us their life story and how desperate they are for help to escape to a better place. Almost everyone was friendly, pleased to see tourists, happy to give up their time to help if we needed it. But there is a large, open sewer running through the slums used by children as a toilet and pigs as their home. Colourful tuk tuks race around the city beeping their horns and brandishing their slogans whilst others carry Christmas boxes begging for spare change to help them through. It was sad and uplifting at the same time.
During this time we had spent hours looking at our options and discovered that Freetown is expensive for almost everything and that includes flights and shipping. However, the port city of Abidjan in Cote D´Ivoire is one of the cheapest cities. Abidjan is on the tour itinerary and is a couple of weeks in the future giving more time for the possibility of the Ghana borders reopening. We therefore decided to stay with the truck for a little longer and see how things panned out.
After a luxurious day not leaving Oasis´s doors at all, we therefore said our sad farewells and headed off to meet the group at their beach campsite 50km down the peninsula. It was Christmas Eve…..