We were up very early on Boxing Day at Tiwai Island ready to head for the Liberian border. The road was expected to be difficult and bumpy, Steve said it could take up to 9 hours to reach the campsite on the other side at Robertsport.
Something had changed, imperceptible but fundamental. We were no longer excited by entering a new country, determined to enjoy every minute and see as much as we could on our all too brief travels through. Instead we were thinking about the future and going over and over options, obstacles and plans. Liberia held little interest although it was only in hindsight that we realised this. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D´Ivoire, they were all just parcels of land between us and the Ghana borders.
The group was unhappy as a whole now, bickering amongst themselves and angry about everything that was happening. Life had become pretty miserable for everyone, not least the driver Steve who was trying to do his best but was struggling with no support.
We had no idea of what there was to see or do in Liberia, we have never travelled to any country as ill informed about it as this. We had definitely forgotten to live life in the moment and enjoy what´s in front of us, we were focussed on the future and seeing only the bad side of everything.
Nevertheless, the roads to the border were remarkably good, the border was easy and we arrived in Robertsport by early afternoon.
Everyone had been very friendly so far. People loved the Landrover, not for the first time out here we were greeted with the phrase ´strong car´ everywhere we went. They love the English here although the country is American-based rather than British. Indeed whilst the official currency is the Liberian Dollar, the USD is accepted (and preferred) everywhere and is even given out at cash machines. The country seemed generally more affluent than most we had travelled through, the people more confident. We regularly heard calls of ´hey, white man´ and the women were propositioned all the time.
Again not for the first time, we saw fires on the sides of the roads as we drove – smouldering, smoking and every so often flames dancing up and licking the side of the road.
The heat was intense, the humidity unbearable, as much as 99% on some days. The landscape was not noticeably different from Sierra Leone but I guess that is no surprise as we were now travelling east rather than south so staying in the same tropical zone.
Robertsport itself was clearly a shadow of its former self. The faded glory was evident – in the 1960s and 70s it was a thriving beach-side tourist destination. Hotels, restaurants and the infrastrcuture to go with it now sat on the roadsides derelict and empty. Civil war is a devastating thing and this country suffered an Ebola outbreak just a few years after their war had ended throwing them a double wammy.
But they are clearly working their way out of it, the poverty was not as evident as some places we had seen and the people seemed determined.
I took no photos of Robertsport, it never even occured to me. We were that focussed on more mundane matters, the fact that we were travelling through a new and exciting country that needed documenting didn´t cross my mind….
Well, there was one photo from the camp site….some things will always remain a priority!
We spent two nights at the campsite on the beach. It was beautiful but the humidity was becoming a problem. I swam in the sea in my shorts and t-shirt then hung them over the line to dry. 36 hours later they were still wet along with my towel and another pair of shorts I had washed two days earlier. I showered one evening just before bed and put my nightshirt on to walk back to the Landrover. I wore that nightshirt for about 15 minutes before getting into bed by which time it was literally ringing wet with sweat. No matter how little we did we permanently had sweat dripping off the end of our noses and chins and could never feel clean – we all fought a constant battle against dehydration. And sleeping was off the menu altogether, the nights were as hot and possibly even more humid than the days, all we could do was to lie on the bed with the roof windows open and sweat it out until morning.
Eventually, after two nights, we packed up and headed to the capital of Monrovia – you guessed it, more visas! This time we were concentrating just on Ghana, trying to find any way to talk our way across the border.
Another capital city, more embassies, our lives were feeling like a treadmill. The traffic started at 12km out, we weaved our way through four lanes of chaotic driving, got shouted at by a tuk tuk driver and finally made it to the Ghana embassy with the truck a few miles behind us. It was closed for the Christmas season.
So we headed to the coordinates Steve had given us for the campsite. Apparently a disused supermarket car park with toilets and showers, not ideal but in the centre of town so convenient for the embassy. In actual fact it was a rubbish dump with a well – used by the locals for their washing and drinking water. I wish I had taken some photos but I didn´t, it was just all too depressing.
One of the group took one look at it and went off to stay in a $200 a night hotel! We are always slightly better off than the others in the group as we sleep in Henry rather than in a tent on the floor and carry our own toilet and shower. But even we were unhappy.
So what do you do when faced with miserable conditions such as this?? Go and find somewhere nice for lunch and have a couple of beers!
It was a Lebanese restaurant of which there are many in west Africa and generally all are very good. This one raised our spirits with free wifi, good food and plenty of beer.
A few of us then decided to walk to the beach and stroll along it back to the campsite. We followed Maps.me, it didn´t look far. But what the map couldn´t tell us was that there was a large shanty town between us and the sea which we needed to walk through. The locals eyed us with interest and amusement as we picked our way through the narrow paths covered in mud and rubbish.
Then they started gestisculating and shouting after us waving us away. We carried on regardless until we realised what they were trying to warn us about! A large, open sewer blocking our way entirely – the smell was appalling, we tried not to look at what was surrounding us and pigs were grunting and squealing all round us. We very quickly backtracked and went to see the last group of men who had tried to warn us. They smiled wryly then took us a different way to the beach – I´m not sure whether anyone in Europe would have been so helpful to a group of arrogant tourists who had waved them away just a few minutes earlier! A little humility might have served us better.
Once we made it to the beach it was not quite what we had hoped. Initially it looked pretty.
Until we noticed that whilst Cap Skirring had had cows on the beach, Monrovia has pigs!
And just a few meters down the atmosphere changed.
Depending on which way you looked you either saw a pristine, empty beach or a poverty stricken shanty town.
The locals were using the beach both for football and for washing. They looked at us suspiciously as we walked past and a few asked us what we were doing. ´Going home´ James replied to one who then said we could carry on.
We walked for miles feeling increasingly uncomfortable but the only way out was through the shanty town and even then there was no obvious route. So we ploughed on until eventually a road appeared and we veered off through another game of football, this time a little more friendly.
Even James was pleased to be off the beach, he was not too happy that we had gone down there at all – but as I pointed out, it´s all part of life´s rich tapestry!
The next morning we woke up to droplets of rain which made the air feel fresher for about half an hour and was a brief but welcome relief. We headed across the road to a diner with air conditioning and indulged in pancakes, sausage sandwich and a smoothie. We also found good wine in the supermarket next door and managed to get them to accept our old $100 bills which we had brought with us from Spain and so far been unable to get accepted as legal tender.
Soon afterwards we heard news from the Ghanainan embassy. It was a polite but firm no, nothing doing, borders closed, no visa, no discussion. Given the conditions on the campsite the majority of the group voted to leave Monrovia that afternoon. It was 11:30am and we set our departure time for 2pm, giving us 2.5 hours to see the sites of Monrovia.
Fortunately there aren´t that many. It tells you a lot about Monrovia that this is pretty much the top tourist site in the whole city….I kid you not, Google it!
The Ducor Palace Hotel. One of the most expensive hotels in Africa in the 1960s, famous for its 5 star luxury. Now a derelict shell and indicative of most of what has happened to Liberia since the civil war of the 1990s.
Everyone grabbed their stuff and jumped into taxis very quickly to go and see it as there wasn´t much time before we left. James decided to work on Henry leaving me unsure whether to stay or go. One of the group told me to find my adventurous spirit and through lack of any other options I decided to join – not really sure why I was heading off for a half hour taxi ride in the baking heat to see a run-down hotel!
But I have to be honest and say it was absolutely fascinating! We were shown round by the head security gaurd who was really informative and wanted no payment for his efforts. He even showed us a photo of what the hotel had looked like in the 1960s.
We wandered around for about half an hour enthralled by the history and decay, it really was an experience.
All the lift cores were open with sheer drops down, you had to be careful not to walk in mistaking it for a bedroom! Taking this photo made me feel a bit giddy!
The views from the upper floors over Monrovia were interesting – partly sad, partly beautiful. This city and this country had obviously had it all once but no longer.
From here my small party wanted to visit the only other real attraction in Monrovia, the African mask market. It was supposed to be right by the Ducor Hotel but we spent ages trying to find it, asking around and eventually jumping into a tuk tuk. In the rush to leave the campsite I had forgotten my hat so was starting to get a bit of mild sun stroke. I was also almost out of water and we were very late – the truck was due to leave at 2pm, it was now 1:40pm and we were all the way over town.
The mask market was lovely, there were quite a few very nice peices of art but I was like a cat on a hot tin roof begging the others to get a move on. Eventually they came, we found a tuk tuk and were off. Tuk tuks can´t go down the main road, as we found out too late, so we were deposited a long way from the camp site and had to walk in the heat of the day at a fast pace to get back before the truck left. When we finally arrived I was hot, bothered, stressed and expecting an earfull from James for holding everyone else up.
But no James. And no Steve. Just a crowd of angry people. As I walked up pouring with sweat and feeling horribly dehydrated they turned to me and angrily demanded to know why James and Steve had gone off to the Cote D´Ivoire embassy when everyone else had rushed about to leave at 2pm. Not being in contact with James – he had the wifi hotspot so I had no internet connection – I was as much in the dark as they the rest of the group. The two of them had apparently rushed off saying something about a permit…..
A frustrating and worrying hour later we had all the details. It turns out Ghana is not the only closed border. Cote D´Ivoire, our next country, has also had closed borders since the beginning of the COVID crisis. No-one had checked, no-one had known, we only found out as the lady who chose to stay in the $200 a night hotel rather than the rubbish dump camp site had happened to have a conversation with someone over breakfast. The permit James and Steve had rushed off to get was a Laissez-Passer, an expensive piece of paper signed by the Ambassador at the embassy allowing us to take the vehicles through the closed land border.
The permits would be ready by 10am the next day, everyone re-pitched their tents, we were staying at the rubbish dump another night!
Always keen to make something good out of a bad situation, we all decided to go to the roof top restaurant of the Royal Grand Hotel that evening for Thai food. We had been spending practically nothing for the last month or so, a couple of good meals out wouldn´t hurt us.
It was lovely. Nice surroundings, far reaching views over the city, great food and good service. Everyone was happy and as one of the group was leaving us in Monrovia, a fitting goodbye celebration.
The next morning was another mess! Both our permits came back saying we were exiting through Burkina Faso – someone else in the group had meddled with ours and we were not happy. The truck left the campsite with some of the group not on it then Steve lost his phone and we were held up on the roadside whilst people jumped into cabs going back to various places looking for it. But eventually we were heading off – late, hot and sweaty, frustrated and angry – towards a waterfall where we were to wild camp for one night to shake off the city.
Kpatawee Waterfall, hardly mentioned in the guide books but it lifted the spirits of the whole group.
Two years ago, long after Steve or any other overland trip had visited, a lovely lady called Josephine had negotiated with the government to take a 20 year lease on the falls and surrounding land and set up a wonderful campsite with bar, restaurant, music and good facilities. She had lived and studied in England for many years so spoke perfect English – and was fascinating to talk to. James and I bonded with her over our travels and she gave us free doughnuts!
But sadly the cost of camping overnight was exorbitant so the excited group was told we weren´t staying. Steve thoughtfully paid $5 a head for us all to stay at the falls for an hour, I think he had read the mood and knew he would have a rebellion on his hands if he dragged us away without so much as a swim!
People were getting to the end of their tethers. They stripped off, whooped and jumped into the water with abandon, but hearts were heavy and mutterings about yet another miserable wild camp with no shower were circulating.
But then Steve came up with a big smile on his face – Josephine had relented and dropped her price to almost a tenth of where she started, we were staying! The small group he told, including me, cheered and patted him on the back. I ran around the rest of the group, all spread around the falls, giving them the news and everyone jumped up and down, danced and looked very relieved. We had a flushing toilet, showers, a bar and beautiful, peaceful surroundings for the the night!
Being out of the city and close to water also had another very welcome effect. The humidity had dropped by at least 20%, the air was fresh and clean. We all felt cool for the first time in days and a much needed good night´s sleep was finally had.
The next morning we were heading off to the Cote D´Ivoire border. Our first closed land border. We had a piece of paper from the embassy apparently allowing us to take the Landrover and truck through and we all had visas. But there are never any guarantees, we had only known it was closed for 36 hours and information was scant. We had started to face the biggest challenges of our journey much sooner than expected and were rapidly losing confidence in our convoy to negotiate safe passage through.
And now it was New Year´s Eve, where and how would we be celebrating??