West Africa is something else. Traveling to every country in the world was always going to be hard, but I had made it to around 150 without doubting my ability to finish, but having spent April to December 2015 in West and Central Africa, I was reaching that point. All the thoughts of Thailand, Argentina, China, Greece, cocktails, happy hours, famous sights had long gone. This was now about survival, simply getting from one country to the next was taking every ounce of strength from me, and in the Ivory Coast, I reached breaking point.
Thankfully just as I was ready to quit and postpone my journey, my friend Josh had joined me in Abidjan, the Capital of the Ivory Coast, which picked me up no end. We spent 2 weeks in Abidjan (the longest stop I have ever had in one place) collecting visas for our crazy onward journeys to Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso etc. After eventually managing to collect all our necessary visas and we were ready to head further West once more, deeper into West Africa, to Liberia.
Liberia may have suddenly appeared on your radar over the last couple of years, not because of the brutal civil war, and horrific dictatorship they once suffered under, but because of Ebola. Liberia, along with Guinea and Sierra Leone (our next 2 countries, wonderful) had all been struck with this horrible disease during 2014 and 2015, and the world panicked. Ebola, though, had now calmed down and had pretty much been eradicated so we were good to go, or so we thought.
We were on a mission to overland (no flights) all the way from the Ivory Coast to Morocco, going through 10 countries or so, it was going to be punishing, but all epic journeys are. So off we went to the horrible Adjame bus station and enquired about how to get to the Liberian border with public transport. Basically our route was going to be Abidjan to Man, a town in the west of the country. That would take one full day. From Man, we would take a shared taxi to Danane, then a motorbike to the cross the border, that should take the best part of another day. Sleep in some border shack in Liberia, then spend day 3 overland to Monrovia, the Capital of Liberia. What could possible go wrong?
So 5am the following day we headed to Adjame bus station once more for our day long journey to Man. We got off to a bad start when a bandit border our taxi to the bus station by LITERALLY jumping ON TOP of the taxi, as the taxi driver tried (and failed) to remove him. We drove for 20 minutes trying to shake him off, but he was demanding payment for helping us find our bus, despite pointing us in completely the wrong direction. Eventually I had to get out and take a firm stance. Sometimes raising your voice, shouting and swearing, drawing a crowd, is the only way to get these guys to back off. Anyway, mission accomplished. Horrible start, and it was only 5.45am. Turns out our ticket seller lied and the bus didn’t leave until 9am. Start off as you mean to go on I guess..
The roads were awful, bumpy, stop/start. Toilet breaks, cigarette breaks, driver breaks. But it wasn’t so bad, I had experienced a lot worse through Central Africa. 12 hours or so stuck on this bad boy, the sun set and we arrived in Man. Rather than sleep and then head straight through to Danane, we decided to check out Man for one day, recharge our sore bodies and explore. What a decision that was, this place was beautiful, and worthy of a specific article which I’ll get to later….
After a day hiking and exploring we were ready to spend another day in a shared taxi. West African shared taxis can come in two forms – one, a standard 1980s-model Peugeot 504s 5 seater or ‘sept-place’, which translates as 7 seats because they squeeze 7 people on 5 seats, for 12 hour+ journeys. Ouch. Or minibuses, again with 16 seats yet fit 24. This was our reality for the next few days.
We managed to get one of the minibuses which headed straight to Danane, we set off again around 5am, hoping to cover 100km or so in a couple of hours. Wishful thinking. Uncomfortably squeezed in the front seats, Josh and I watched as we picked up every goat, chicken and farmer in the west of Ivory Coast, five hours later, we pull up in Danane.
This is where it all starts to go wrong. Danane is a town near the border, from there to cross into Liberia is another 15km or so. We assumed (never a good idea in West Africa), there’d be loads of people crossing the border and we’d be inundated with offers of people to take us to the border crossing as soon as we left the bus. Not the case. 2 men came and tried to tell us the border was closed. We’d been here before. Scammers trying to con you into paying ‘a fee’ so there friend could help us cross. No thank buddy. Finally we find 2 guys who are willing to take us to the border, complete with our backpacks strapped on, on their motorbikes. $10? Deal.
As we spin off, the deal already done, the guys break the news to us that the border is indeed actually, legally, officially closed. Again, I didn’t wanna believe it, it had taken us nearly 2 whole days on sh*tty public transport to reach this point, it CAN’T be true. But we had been chatting to these guys for over an hour, they seemed really cool and worryingly sincere.
“No worry my friend, I know another border, police is my brother, they let us cross for little money”
And off we went. I figured after two days of hell, a small bribe to allow us to continue is the least of my worries, so we jump on the bike, and start weaving through the African jungle, 30 minutes or so later we reach a police check point, where the head of the police is mean, overweight 50 year old guy with a huge scar on his left cheek. This is it, and he doesn’t look happy to see us. They check the driver’s documents, then they ask for our documents. I try to be super friendly, joking in my terrible French. They tell us the Liberia/Ivory Coast border is closed on the Ivory Coast side (the Liberian side is open), I tell them I know, and we’re sorry but we are Ebola free and we’re on this epic journey etc. I’m just waiting for him to ask for some money, but he doesn’t move. Our driver offers a bribe. Rejected. He offers a bigger bribe. Rejected. I interject, and offer a real bribe. Rejected and offended. Really offended. Oh shit. At this point I look behind me only to see locals crossing the border with a discrete golden handshake with other police men, “no problem for them?” i say, pissed off. Not a great angle to take Johnny boy. “To the Police Station!” he announces as he grabs Josh’s and my passport. This isn’t good. “Huh?! Wtf?!”. 5 minutes ago I was sure we’d be discretely crossing, 2 minutes ago it looked like we were rejected, now we’re being arrested?
So we drive out of the jungle, to the dusty border town, pull up to the police station. I demand my $10 back from the dodgy taxi driver who refused, but after a scowl from the policeman, he gives me $8 and leaves. We enter the station, drop our bags, give our details and wait there to be summoned.
Finally we get called into an office. They tell us bribery is illegal, as is crossing a closed border. Apologies, apologies, apologies and an explanation. The guy is quite soft, and I’m pretty sure we’re not going to the cells, so I ask to speak to his manager, the chief of police. He refused, I insist. Wait outside. Another 20 minutes until the Chief of Police arrives and summons us to his huge office. He’s surprised to see foreigners in this obscure border crossing, so I explain my plans again. He’s not impressed, but I beg him to let us cross. He says we have to spend 2 days going back to Abidjan and then flying. Nooooo way. That is NOT happening. It’s hell. I ask if any money would help the situation, that went down very badly (i should add, I’m not a corrupt person but having spent 18 months in Africa, from experience i know 99% of the time, this is how it works, not here though apparently!). He gets angry, dismisses us and tells us to immediately leave his town, and take a shared taxi to Man, and then a bus to Abidjan. Cheers mate.
We walk outside, happy to be out of the police station but distraught at the thought of heading all the way back to Abidjan. We walk into the town, grab a bite to eat and try to gather our thoughts. There’s got to be another way.
I decide to start asking around, to see if anyone can smuggle us across the same way the locals do it. Bingo. 20 minutes later, a guy in a photocopy shop says he has a friend who knows a back way across to Liberia and his friend is the only police man manning the route. Perfect. “Are you SURE you can get us across?” “No problem” he laughs. Hmmm. Ok then. Another negotiation, this time $20, backpacks strapped to his motorbike and we’re off again. This time I’m super nervous. What if we get caught? Anyway, we drive a different route to the route before, which instills a touch of confidence in me. 30 minutes or so and we reach a smaller check point. His promise of one police man was false, four of them sitting in a bamboo border hut, I stay beside his bike trying to keep a low profile. Things start to go south when he calls Josh and me over and asks for his passport. “I see you at the police station” he says with a scowl. Oh shit. Our driver wades in with bribery but this is going nowhere, the older policeman is FURIOUS at us for trying to get back across, this time through an illegal crossing with a smuggler. Passports taken from us, we’re back on the bikes again going back to the SAME police station. F*ck f*ck f*ck. This is gonna be awkward.
Bags dropped, details checked, every eye in the station is looking at us now. No foreigners have been here in months (years? ever?) and now us twice in one day. They all know what we tried to do, and we sit there like little kids waiting to see the principal. Tonight in the cells – that’s what I tell josh, they’ll wanna teach us a lesson.
Police Chief summons us. I’m in ‘genuine humble’ mode, he’s in ‘absolutely furious west African authority mode’. Oh dear. Screaming and shouting, insulted, disobeyed. “I thought I told you to leave my town immediately”, “Do you think because you’re not Africa you’re above our law”, “What do you suggest I do with you now”. Not good energy. I apologise profusely, explaining we couldn’t face 2 days in public transport back to Abidjan, that the flights are expensive, that we’re so sorry, and the driver told us it was a different border so maybe it’s open (a lie, but we were in a sticky situation!). The energy slowly warms up, he brings in a translator. I explain more and more about my life goal. Another fifteen minutes and we’re kind joking with each other. The night in the cells is looking less likely. He does say we have to leave the town immediately if he lets us out tho, no excuses. That’s a win in my book. We pack up, shake hands, and walk out.
My moto driver is waiting for me outside, he comes up and whispers “No problem brother, we try tonight when it’s dark, different police, less police”. No f*cking chance mate, thanks anyway! The policeman translator walks out with us, he’s being super cool and offers to drive (escort?) us to the shared taxi station, he even lets me grab a couple of pics together…
He drops us back at the shared taxi rank but we can’t face it just yet, what a day it’s been. We grab some food, and have a long chat. Laughing and joking about the madness, relief that we’ve been let out by the police, frustration about the arduous journey we have ahead to get back to Abidjan, and by the ridiculous priced flight we’re gonna have to pay to get to Liberia. “This is real travel” I think to myself. I pay the bill, cross the street and buy us two spots in the shared taxi back to Man, where we’ll try to connect to Abidjan, and then sort out a flight to Liberia. It was at this point, things got even worse, a lot worse….
PART 2 COMING TOMORROW x