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Published: August 16th 2012
Gilly hanging out with the termites
The rain continued to thunder down as we pulled in to the Guinea border police check point. We jumped out the car and made the dash to the immigration office but our efforts were wasted as we were soaked to the skin within seconds. By now the spray from the rain hitting the road danced up to our knees and we looked fairly pathetic as we entered the dark immigration office looking like drowned rats. Guinea is a desperately poor country with barely functioning infrastructure evidenced by the lack of electricity for up to 20 hours a day. The gruff police officer processed our passports using a feeble torch that barely lit up the huge battered ledger that he was writing our details into. We trudged back into the rain and walked back to the car, it seemed pointless to run now, there was nothing dry left on our person. We negotiated the next bureaucratic formalities, customs and military, with a weary disinterest, each checkpoint officer copying our details down while barking random questions at us or fishing for ‘gifts’. We are quite adept now at bluffing our way through such requests and not handing over anything. An hour or
so later we were back on the road and with the cloak of darkness snapping at our heels we tried to find somewhere to sleep in the border town of Sambailo, again, the Lonely Planet guide was not much help so we ended up in a crappy hotel with no electricity and rooms that must have registered at least 40 degrees temperature wise. It was easily the worse night’s sleep of our journey so far as the sauna like room resulted in frequent trips to the shower during the night in an attempt to cool down.
Grouchy and sleepy we left early the next day and started our long journey to Labe, the gateway to the Fouta Djalon region, one of the few remaining tropical dry forests in West Africa. After picking up a few supplies in the market town of Koundara we set out south along a surprisingly new and speedy highway. However this novelty of smooth asphalt soon ended abruptly after about 20 kilometres and we were thrown back onto the now familiar red laterite mud roads. That said, we could not have asked for a more scenic drive as we slowly snaked our way
Gill on 'mototaxi' in Labe
up the Fouta Djalon plateau. The road passed through some pretty traditional round house villages and afforded some great vantage points to take in the green rolling forested hills. Even better, the higher altitude brought with it a drop in temperature to something approaching comfortable. We had to contend with a fairly belligerent ferry boat operator who stopped his vessel halfway across a river while we argued over the toll fee and had to swerve to avoid a cow that had been struck by the bush taxi ahead of us but we enjoyed the picturesque drive for another few hours before we finally entered Labe, Guineas third largest town. We soon found suitable lodgings even if they were managed by the most disinterested teenager in the whole of West Africa and made our way into town for a bite to eat. A feature we soon found repeated everywhere in Guinea was that every restaurant will only serve fried chicken and chips. Even when you pass a market outside full of fresh vegetables the restaurant will still only churn out fried chicken and chips, we were beginning to miss being on the coast and having access to fresh fish. Labe was
Watching the Ireland v Spain match in Labe
a fairly unremarkable town, more of a staging post for tourists to organise treks around the countryside. We were hoping to spend a few days walking through the forest and sneaking a peak at several of the regions waterfalls but the rain was so persistently heavy it lost its appeal that, coupled with the fact that the only trekking company in town was closed led us to just treat Labe as a rest place.
We heard of a bar that was showing the Ireland v Spain football match and saw this as a fun way to spend an evening. However, stepping out of the hotel we were confronted with a darkness that was slightly eerie. Labe had not had a reliable electricity supply for years so the entire town was plunged into darkness after the sun set, no street lights or buildings provided any illumination. Instead we saw the odd cluster of torch lights as locals made their way about with great care so not to fall into the myriad of open drains or get run over by the multitude of motorbikes that swarmed like bumblebees through the dark streets. Most of these bikes were actually ‘taxis’,
Guinea's Fouta Djalon region
and for a few pennies you could be whisked to the other side of town at breakneck speed on crap roads without the use of a helmet. We decided it would be great craic to give these open top taxi bikes a go to get to the bar so after some brief negotiations over the fare we enjoyed a hair raising ride through the dark streets. The bar was packed with locals watching the football, they always are irrespective of who is actually playing. From the murky inside of the place it would seem that the small generator out the back was only big enough to provide power for the television so all the lights were off and the small room was basked in the pale blue light that the screen provided. Every so often the generator would fail and the screen would turn black and the place was plunged into darkness with a roar of disapproval from the gathered patrons. A few frantic minutes and several strikes of a hammer later the feeble generator would grunt back into life and the TV would flicker back on to a chorus of ‘aaaaaaaaaaahhhhs’ as if there was a firework display on
Gill with Gurt and Christoph
behind the bar. The frequent blackouts were probably a good thing given the hiding the Irish were getting on the pitch. After the match we made another ‘Easy Rider’ trip back to the hotel where Gill unfortunately burnt her leg on the exhaust of the bike.
From Labe we drove to Dalaba, an old colonial administrative centre, a fairly unremarkable town where the only point of interest was the old decaying governor’s residence. Perched on a high escarpment if renovated it could be an amazing hotel with fine views over the forested valley. From Dalaba we made the decision to strike out east to Kankan rather than heading to the capital Conakry. Our original plan was to spend a few days in the capital before making our way to Freetown in Sierra Leone. The main draw of Sierra Leone were the stunning beaches but after checking the weather forecast that indicated that it would be torrential rain for the next few weeks rendering most of the road network unusable and making any beach time a fairly miserable experience, so we reluctantly turned our back on coast and headed towards Mali. The road to Kankan was in a
Guinea's 'B' Roads
desperate state making progress painfully slow. Locals seem to still race along these roads as they treat their cars rather like Bic Biros, something to chewed up before finally getting broken then replaced a few months later. A surprising number of bush taxis had monkeys as mascots, usually strapped to the roof, they looked lest then thrilled by their predicament. We were offered one which was tempting, alas it did not come with a Fez hat or sequined waistcoat so we declined.
Guinea gets few travellers at the best of times, so being a traveller and white always attracts attention, not just from the kids but adults as well who generally equate you as being fabulously rich. This usually leads to prices in markets or fuel stations to magically inflate tenfold when they see you. Although expected it can get a bit irksome as we are constantly asked for money, gifts and food or generally overcharged or short changed in cafes and shops leading to arguments. What I find more annoying though is the expectation that you are obliged to pay the outrageous sums of money demanded for basic goods and services. You can’t help but laugh
Typical Guinea 'Roundhouse' village
at the incandescent rage you occasionally get from a shopkeeper when you walk away from a purchase because you refuse to spend $10 on a few onions and mango. The hippies at Lonely Planet try to guilt you into half accepting this status quo by often reminding you that a cash strapped traveller from Europe is still in a much better position than 99% of the people they meet on the road in a country with no welfare state that is languishing at the bottom of all economic tables. This is all true. We give a few coins to the blind or disabled man begging at the road junction but we are more than happy to tell any would be chancers to piss right off.
Kankan it has to be said is a filthy shithole. No amount of travel guide spin about this places ‘unique character’ can disguise the fact that it is a seriously unpleasant place in terms of litter, crumbling infrastructure, open sewers, corrupt police and crap accommodation. We made a beeline for the Catholic Mission in the centre of town, supposedly one of better hotel options available, alas when we rolled into the compound
we were not met by priests or nuns but by a motley crew of ‘gangsta’ lads who took an uneasy interest in our Landcruiser. After being shown a grubby room with unidentified stains on the walls that carried a rather unsavoury smell of stale urine we decided to look elsewhere for accommodation. Stepping over the used condoms on the way back to the car suggested a less then strict adherence to Vatican doctrine and led us to believe the rooms were probably rented on an hourly basis. Thankfully the next hotel, although not luxury, had novel things like clean sheets and a door that locked. While there we met a couple of Belgian guys, Gurt and Christophe, who had just transited through Liberia and Cote’d’Ivor in a Landcruiser that looked a bit more beat up then ours. They organised and ran overland adventure ‘rallies’ for Europeans who fancy a few weeks tearing through Morocco and Senegal in old 2CVs or Mercs. They were returning home after doing a bit of a reconnaissance work for future overland trips. We later found out that these chaps were local celebreties back in Belgium as they had years earlier driven an old citreon
Fixing Tyrone's Wheel
2CV from Brussels to Cape Town and had written a best selling book and featured in a TV documentary detailing their exploits. They were friendly guys who were happy to give us plenty of tips and advice although the evening went rapidly downhill when Gurt planted a bottle of whisky on the table.
With the situation in the north of Mali looking more unstable by the minute we were keen to plan our exit strategy from Guinea. If possible we wanted to transit through the south of Mali and found on a map a little used border crossing that allowed us to leave Guinea and avoid Mali’s capital Bamako altogether and wriggle our way into Burkina Faso ‘through the back door’. We reckoned the border crossing would be about a four or five hour drive from Kankan along some pretty crap roads but it would be worth it. Picking up some bread and cheese at the market and filling the car up we set off early with a view to be in Mali town of Bourgouni by the evening. The roads were not as bad as we thought and within a few hours had reached the regional
town of Mandiana, half way to the border. As we slowly drove through the town we noticed several army barracks and a high police presence, oddly enough they declined to stop us and we meandered through the town and headed out east. The road at this stage was deteriating rapidly, are progress slowed to a crawl as we had to negotiate broken bridges, mud holes and washed away sections of track. After another 20kms or so I noticed on the GPS that we were straying too far north, we made the fatal mistake of asking for directions. The problem with this, as we discovered later, is that you have to ask for directions in the right way. Simply pointing ahead and asking, “is this the way to Mali” will land you in big trouble as Guinean people generally don’t like to be seen to not know the answer or appearing unhelpful so they will nod their heads enthusiastically and confirm that you are indeed on the right track even when you are not. We also had to bare in mind that many of these people, especially the women, had probably not travelled more than about 15km outside their village, they
'Kankan' You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy
often simply did not know what was beyond the nearest market town. We were met with blank looks when we unfolded a map and pointed to where we thought we were. We should have copped ourselves on, the settlements we were passing through had not changed in centuries, we really were in the arse end of nowhere. There was no electricity or running water, all buildings were of the small round hut and grass roof variety and there were no cars, we were now being met with stares as if we had just landed in a spaceship. Although we were not totally lost, we could always back track where we had been with the GPS, but we were far from where we wanted to be. It was going to be dark soon and we had abandoned any notion of reaching Mali that day. When the track was clear in both directions we took a sharp turn into the bush and drove a few hundred meters into the dense scrubland and found a huge copse of trees to hide behind. It had been a long day and we were exhausted and fed up having utterly failed with our day’s objective. We
Kankan motorbike production line.
popped the roof tent, made a quick meal of noodles and crawled into bed with just the noise of the wildlife to keep us company.
We awoke the next day at first light and made the decision to backtrack to Kankan, it would cost us an extra day but we were so far off the beaten track that we decided to go back to square one as it were. We fired up Tyrone and emerged from undergrowth startling a man on a motorbike in the process. We were a bit more upbeat, upon reflection the previous day was not a wasted expedition, we had seen parts of Guinea that very few people would ever get a chance to see and had met some lovely people, even if they were crap at giving directions. We had witnessed traditional farming techniques as men toiled the soil with an ox and wooden plough, we saw mothers with children strapped to their backs washing clothes in the river on one side while panning for gold on the other. We had seen very few trappings of western culture whose tentacles seem to penetrate to even the most remote places, even the children
The Road to Labe
had ceased to wear Barcelona football shirts.
We made our way back to Mandiana and this time we were not so lucky with the police, they pulled us over and demanded that I escort them to the police station a short distance away. This was the first time that I had to get out of the car, usually the police will forensically go through your documents trying their best to find something wrong before letting you go after a few feeble attempts at angling for a ‘gift’. This looked a bit more sinister, so it began to unfold, the accusations of ‘serious infractions’ that I had not stopped at a police checkpoint. It was all bullshit of course, there was no police checkpoint but they had decided on an offence and were quite literally sticking to their guns. There were three policeman, two younger short stocky men and an older taller man. They sat me down in the dark room and started going through their well oiled god cop bad cop routine asking, why I had not stopped at the checkpoint while tutting to themselves and shaking their heads with my every answer. They pored over
'Tyrone' and Gill
my documents and seemed disappointed to find them in order, they seemed even more annoyed when I reached across the desk to retrieve them, no way did I want these assholes using my paperwork as bargaining chip. They demanded 100,000 Guinea Francs ‘fine’. I said no and this seemed light the blue tough paper. They started to get really angry, aggressively pacing the room before slamming their fists on the desk and pointing their fingers in my face demanding I pay the fine or face serious consequences. There is a general rule when dealing with police like this, that is if they keep you in custody for half an hour you are the one with a problem, if you are still there after this time they are the ones with the problem, so they have a short window of opportunity to try and scare you into handing over money or possessions. The last thing they want is ‘the chief’ getting involved or even worse, your embassy. Obviously when you start ‘negotiating’ down the barrel of a gun you cede to their demands but at this point I was ‘happy’ to be shouted at, I was more concerned with Gill waiting
in the car outside as I had been away for about 40 mins at this stage. As I discovered later she really believed that I was going to be thrown out of the police station all beaten up so had jumped into the driver’s seat ready for a quick getaway. Eventually though, I was beginning to get bored and pissed off and asked to speak to ‘the chief’, they refused at which point I started to stand up and shout at them demanding they show me where the police checkpoint was that I had supposedly run and if they could not do that to get the police chief on the phone. What I did not realise was that the police chief was actually in the same building and after hearing the commotion he had lumbered his ample frame (why are third world police chiefs always fat bastards) into the room to see what the fuss was about. He surveyed the scene and then with barely a murmur waved me on my way. I did not say a word and walked out the room only to hear the three policemen roar with laughter. I got back to the car to find Gill in the driver seat ready for a quick getaway. During my absence she had been hiding wads of notes in various nooks and crannies around the car as well as in her bra just in case the police decided to search the vehicle.
We drove off cursing the police and wishing them a short and painful existence.
We arrived back in Kankan and booked ourselves back into the same hotel we had stayed at a few days before. It had been an eventful few days and by this stage we were keen to head off to Mali, only this time we would be taking a more conventional route to the border, we had an early night and rose early to make the trip to Bamako. We left Kankan behind us and set off on the surprisingly good road to the border when about 20km out from Kankan there was nauseating thud from Tyrone.
The front right of the car dropped violently and the sicking screeching sound of metal on tarmac filled the cabin. Instinctively we knew what it was even though we were still in shocked denial as to the events unfolding around us. Looking out the window my suspicions were confirmed as I saw our detached front wheel spinning along the road by the side of the car and more worryingly in the mirror I saw a shower of sparks spitting out the rear of the car. The wheel, almost as if it had become self-aware decided it was bored keeping the car company and with its new found freedom veered off the road and down the embankment before kicking violently into the air. It was quite hypnotising watching the wheel as it quite literally bounced over a small tree and disappeared into the fields behind. I slowly nursed the car to the side of the road and gently brought it to a halt.
Climbing out of the car and inspecting the huge empty cavity that once housed the wheel I could see the still smoking ragged looking brake disc sitting on the road supporting the weight of the vehicle. It had just carved 120m neat groove in the road and in the process worn a sizeable flat spot on its side. The Guinean road authorities would be pretty upset, we had just spoiled one of their few good roads. There was nervous laughter, our predicament was pretty dire. Stuck in a strange tropical country on the side of the road with a buggered brake disc, a missing wheel, it would be dark in a few hours, we were miles from the nearest town and the bloated moody looking grey skies that had been threatening rain all day decided that now would be a good time disgorge their contents.
Right, time for action, Gill got the warning triangles out of the car and sprinted up the road to set them up. I then went off to find our wheel, this actually really worried me, if that had hit someone it would have killed them dead. I tried to visualise where it would have ended up and after several minutes of crawling through the undergrowth and bushes I emerged in a clearing and saw three elderly ladies sitting on the ground peeling a pile of corn. The rouge wheel was lying flat in the long grass about twenty meters away. “Erm, excuse me, can have my wheel back?”. I felt like a naughty schoolboy asking for his football back after kicking through the neighbour’s greenhouse. They did not say a word, probably not used to white guys emerging from the bushes looking for bits of 4x4. I sauntered over to the wheel, lifted it upright and proceeded to roll it back to the road. I forgot how bloody heavy these things were and breathed a sigh of relief that nobody had been hurt. Back at the car our mishap had already gained the interest of a passer by. A young lad on a moped had pulled over to see if could help. He worked at one of the huge open cast gold mines that litter eastern Guinea and was on his way to work. We pulled out the bottle jack from the back of the car and tried to slide it under the huge axel of Tyrone. Unfortunately with the car resting on the brake discs there was not enough of a gap between the axel and the ground to get any purchase with a convention jack so we had to bring out the big guns, in this case the hi-lift jack that attaches itself to the steel bumpers. I was hoping we would never have to use the hi-lift jack as they do have a bit of reputation of being highly dangerous as they don’t provide the most stable of jacking platforms and can be prone to slipping out violently from under the jacked car. But we had no choice, we slowly started to crank the stricken car up off the road before sliding a few large rocks under the now clear axel. This at least allowed us to access the disc and hub assembly, thankfully the latter was still intact. We could see that all six wheel mount bolts had sheared clean off, a very rare thing indeed. By this stage a taxi had also pulled over and the driver plus passengers came out offering help. It was humbling to see that none of the passengers were complaining about their journey being interrupted, they sat on the side of the road joking while the driver offered his assistance. Eventually we decided to hop in the taxi and drive back to Kankan to seek out a mechanic who could replace the broken bolts as these were one of the few items we did not carry as spare. I was reluctant to leave Gill guarding Tyrone so scooter man who had stopped earlier offererd to stay with her while I was scouting out the mechanic. Thankfully it took no time to find a man in Kankan and after explaining the problem he agreed to help and he hopped in the taxi with his toolkit and we sped back out to see Tyrone still cutting a sorry figure on the side of the road. By this stage Gill was now fully clued up with all the latest developments with the Guinean mining industry.
Our mechanic and his apprentice son replaced the bolts and we managed to heave the wheel back into position and tighten the new nuts in place. Tyrone fired up first time and we left him ticking over on the side of the road for several minutes while we poked around under the bonnet and searched under engine for any leaks or signs of other damage before limping very slowly back to Kankan, we were getting sick of this town now.
The next day we again made another attempt to get to Mali, we left early and took things very easy rarely moving about 45 mile an hour. Tyrone sounded fine and the wheel had not made any further attempts at freedom so we started to relax a bit although we were still a little bit nervous about entering a country that seemed on the cusp of civil war. After a few more hours we made it to the Guinea Mali border. We started to go through the exit procedures and the immigration and custom officials at first seemed pretty honest and professional. However, our optimism was short lived, we had to negotiate the final hurdle of getting the policeman who controlled the barrier to let us through. We entered his office where he announced “You must pay the road toll, 10,000 CFA, everyone pays this.” We were getting sick of this now, it was just another scam, “sure, no problem, can we have a receipt” we asked incredulously. “No, you do not need a receipt” he snapped back. “Fine” we said, so we pulled out a few books from our bag and sat at his desk reading, refusing to move an inch. “So, what is it to be, will you pay the road toll?” the young man ventured. “Are you going to give us a receipt?” we shot back. Finally after several more minutes he tried the ‘good cop’ routine and attempted to strike up some small talk about where we had been and if we were going to return to Guinea. “Depends on the road toll?” we responded peering through the tops of our books. At this stage the policeman was getting agitated and resorted to almost begging, “Please, you have to understand, I work here all day in the hot sun for very little money”. It was pathetic really, the sums involved were not large and as tourists we carried a bit more clout then the locals who invariably had to pay the fictitious ‘road toll’ but we were getting sick to death of getting shaken down by every guy in a uniform. We were also keen to get on the road to Bamako and had to get through the barrier. We offered him a couple of cigarettes and he accepted them without fuss, keen to get us out of his office. The barrier raised and we moved into Mali.
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