I don’t travel in kilometers I travel by hours.

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Africa » Guinea-Bissau » East » Gabú
May 6th 2011
Published: May 16th 2011
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People say “Oh how many kilometres is it to so’n’so?” or answer back when I ask the question, “How long will it take?” “Oh about 245 kilometres.” … That is not what I asked. I travel by hours not kilometres. Travelling by kilometres is useless in Africa. There are so many variables that give you a fluctuating timeframe.

What vehicle is being used? How many stops it will make, if there is a spare seat halfway through the trip, are they going to stop and try and pick up another passenger? Does the driver have errands to run? How many trucks will we be caught behind? Also how good does the vehicle climb up hills? The state of the tyres and most importantly the road. Has the road been upgraded since colonialism? In the case of the road from Gabu Guinea-Bissau to Lube Guinea that is not the case.

Gabu is the last major town before crossing the border to Guinea. The town is only a few streets with convenience stores selling limited stock and in front of them people selling their staple goods like bread, fruit and veg. It’s not worth the stop over but sometimes when you are this remote your only option is to wait until the bus is full.

Most of my travel in West Africa has been by car or station wagon but unfortunately for this part of my trip it was via a mini bus so 16 seats needed to be filled to maximise profit. I arrived at midday and got seat no1. This means I got the front seat but will be the person who waits the 2nd longest for the bus to leave behind the driver.

I sat down at the taxi stand and had a feeling of déjà vu. This was going to be Tajikistan all over again and I would be waiting all day to leave. It was okay for most part sitting in the shade but when the afternoon sun chased it away it got unbearably hot and there was no sign that this bus was leaving today. At 5pm I was told, “demain” (tomorrow).

I have been trying to be respectful to local culture and everyone in West Africa seems to wear long pants so I have been to. But the heat created sweat and a volcano like zit on my left thigh so this added to tension with the heat. But with an overnight rest I could remain patient as I was on the first day of waiting.

I arrived back at 8am and waited again. I had a lot of time to observe the conditions of the transport stand. Generally there is a lot of dirt around with bashed up station wagons with roof racks parked all around. Exhaust fumes sputter about and rubbish is everywhere. Concrete structures that house little shops have been patched up with tin sheets. Kids come up to beg and women sit in front esky’s which have empty soft drink cans taped together on top to indicate they are selling drinks.

I spoke to Maju a taxi driver that does the Labu-Gabe- Conakry loop. He said he had to buy his 1987 Peugeot 505 for $2500. It took him 14 months to pay off the car.

There was a lot of time to observe and I saw a guy pushing his bicycle and on the handlebars were 5 chickens upside down on each handle bar. I wish I could have got a photo of it but he was too quick.

I looked at the rubbish everywhere and wondered how can the people here not show pride in the area. How can the government not pay someone collectively $2 a day to clean the area up? Than pay another guy like $5 to take his collection to a tip. There is enough vacant land in the country to have a tip. But African rubbish is another issue.

I had waited 24 hours by this point and at last we were off with me in the precious front seat. Within the first 20 seconds we stop to pick up petrol. Nearly every trip starts like this. A long wait and then a stop to pick up petrol. This is because income is scarce so they only fill up when money is guaranteed – I understand but still really annoying.

I read that this road was bad but hands down this road was the worst road I have ever travelled on. For its consistency and longevity. By the end I concluded if I wasn’t in the front seat my soul could have been destroyed. This is not dramatising, this is fact.

It took 3 and a half hours to complete 40 kms from Gabu to the border. This is not because of traffic or picking up other passengers. It was mainly because of the roads. At times giant chasms blocked passages to the other side of the road. With trees on either side we had to go for it. So slowly but surely we tilt forward and to the bottom of the crater and revved to the max to get back up again to attack the next pothole.

To mentally get through this you have to think of positives and I thought, ‘If this were wet season it would be horrendous.’ At the border I was just about to walk into the office and a local lady at the desk had her top up revealing her saggy breasts – that’s never happened before!

I was stamped out and walked to the vehicle. To the side in a straw hut with mud walls barely high enough to stand up in, 3 guards tried to check my bags. I yell “Noa no aqui!” (NO! Not here) and walked off to hang a piss in the bushes. I get called back and do my typical ridiculing best. “Esta es differente to otro frontiers?” (This is different to other borders.)

They see my laptop and camera and are not happy - they think I am a journalist. “Tourist normal bicycleta” they said. I reply back quite calmly that I am a tourist “Esta libro es por tourist” {This (Lonely planet) book is for tourists.} I then get a big speech on which I don’t understand “No entiendo” That’s followed by him asking what is my name. I question myself deliberately to emphasis my lack of understanding and than say my name “Andreas.” With that they looked to give up.

One guy looks like he’s got the shits whilst the other guy points his finger at me and says something along the lines of. “Andrew I will remember that name. If I see a report from you and its negative I will use all my powers to track you down. But in all likelihood I won’t be able to get very far from the borders of my own country so if you ever come back into this country. I will make it my personal mission to punish you.” I say “Okay? Abrigardo!” (Thankyou!!)

This was one of the most remote border postings I have ever been to and again it felt a bit of Tajikistan about it. (Tajik to Kyrgyzstan is still my all time remotest border.) Guinea side had ununiformed officers, which were more pleasant despite having to go through the same stuff. The fence around the building to process the entry stamp was made out of the bottoms of empty beer bottles so it was about toe nail high.

The road slightly improved but not much, less chasms and craters. There were about 6 children who were on the bus and it wasn’t until the 18th hour they started crying. We stopped a few times to have dinner - rice with a green vegetable mashed up. I tried to get the name of it but best I could get was potat.

Other times when we stopped was to cool the engine down. The engine was up against my leg so the heat was cooking my muscles tender. Even though you are sitting down doing nothing it is very exhausting and I couldn’t help but fall asleep. The guy sitting next to me in the front took pride in his African ability to remain awake for the whole tip. I on the other hand couldn’t.

I was in and out of micro sleeps. Whiplashing of a rare kind - Actually my sunglasses fell off the top of my head once. It took me half an hour to find it in the dark. I thought I whiplashed it out the window. I sat on them the next day and broke them so it wouldn’t have been too much of a lose.

Before it went dark we had our first sight of the Founta Djalon. A range of green hills that is known as a really picturesque drive. But the sun had set and like my Tajikistan experience I would drive all day to see the most picturesque part in the dark. However the moon was almost full and that enabled the mountains to reveal its outline for me.

It approached 9am and after waiting 24 hours to depart it took 20 hours and a half to get the first sight of Labe - The third largest town in Guinea. It has a pretty large mosque, which I saw in the distance. I have never been so happy to see a mosque in my life.

These rides are really tough mentally, physically and soul crushing. You can’t say you’ve travelled until you hate travel. And this ride along some of the worst roads ever, provided no joy and no sense of achievement. It’s done and I never want to go back there again, although I probably will somewhere else in the world.


16th May 2011

I don’t travel in kilometers I travel by hours:
I feel compassion for this conundrum; Similarly I wrote about it on a blog some years back: An aspect of African travel which has to be experience firsthand is the anarchic interpretations of time and distance. If you leave for work at 8.55am, drive 37kms at a speed of 70km/h and stop 5 minutes for petrol, what time will you get to work? Give a man a calculator and he’ll hazard a guess at an answer. However, stopping at a random village deep in Masaai country and asking the first person who catches your eye what time you’ll arrive in Oloitokitok is an entirely different proposition. Firstly the distance is unknown; the speed travelled varies drastically according to the condition of the road (ranging from diabolical to plain old bumpy). The average probability of stops varies from 1 to 1000 to pick up/drop off passengers and their luggage, with each stop taking anything from 3 seconds to 30 minutes. Factor in the day of the week for market days/festivals, weddings and not forgetting the current weather conditions, punctures, gear box failures and radiator leakages. Top this all off with the fact the poor guy you’ve put on the spot has never been there or yet more relevant to his challenge; he’s never owned a timepiece! And perhaps we should forgive him his inaccuracy? There is a reason there is no mention of this formula in Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica; and that is because it goes way beyond the limits of human knowledge. Yet, like restless little children in the back of the car, we continue to ask that age old conundrum “Are we there yet?
16th May 2011

Neat Blog.
I'm liking the sharp writing style. Made me smile. Keep 'em coming. :-)
18th May 2011

Isn't that the truth!
When we were in Peru we flew two hours to a location and later learned that it was a 17 hour bus ride. From the folks who took the bus we learned there was not much to look at on that road. Normally, that is the route we would have taken but our time was short.

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