Long Road to Freetown (Part 1)

This is the first of two updates about the journey from Labe in Guinea to Freetown in Sierra Leone. This part takes me as far as Kindia, where I had a short rest before continuing across the border.

Leaving Labe

We left Labe late in the afternoon having gorged on a cheap lunch of rice and a surprisingly tasteless sauce in a dim and dirty shack that called itself a restaurant and was filled with flies, noisy chickens in the corner and several locals (they were sat at the table with us, not in the corner with the chickens).

Perhaps it was the over-sprinkling of crushed chillis I added to my bland bowlful, but my stomach certainly didn’t agree with something I had eaten. And so I barely managed to cycle 20km with my fit-to-burst bloated stomach.

Golden fields outside Labe

Golden fields outside Labe

Fortunately we found a beautiful spot to camp just off the Labe-Pita tarmac road in the long, golden grasses beneath a black rocky outcrop overlooking the expansive, rolling hills and valleys. I was very nearly interrupted on one visit to my loo-with-a-view because I didn’t realise there was a footpath on the other side of the little bush, but although I saw the small procession of women returning home with baskets on their heads, they didn’t see me squatting in the undergrowth! We had left Labe well-prepared and it seems the numerous sachets of youpi-choco chocolate spread and red wine combination for dinner had the right effect on my stomach though. So by the next morning I was feeling fitter again and ready for a good day’s ride… that was until I actually got on the bike and realised my legs were still very tired from the previous weeks’ exertions.

Lost Again

After a pit-stop to re-fuel (coke) in Pita we turned off the tarmac and back onto the familiar dusty tracks, to take the lesser road to Kindia via Telimele. According to the guidebook, this road has lots of seemingly similar tracks and it can be hard to find the right one. We laughed at this as the route seemed very straightforward, especially after the network of paths we had been confronted with in Guinea-Bissau. It seems that there was some truth to what the guidebook said though… we only realised when we ended up in Timba Madina – a large village, not on the Telimele road, but one going back to Labe. The route to get back on track was particularly scenic, winding along hedgerows between grassy fields with the occasional cow grazing and over little bridges spanning gently flowing streams with beautiful violet wild flowers growing in abundance. In my weakened state however, I couldn’t fully appreciate this 20km detour.

After 65km I was completely devoid of any energy and wasn’t even up to drinking more than one glass of red wine to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. The next day I was still completely shattered and for the first time on this trip, it was Lars who was up and made me coffee in the morning.

Caught Out

In Donghol Touma we stopped to buy bread and once again I was short-changed – this time by a small boy, who unsubtly swapped two 1,000 Franc notes for 500 Franc ones. He shrank back, suitably ashamed, when I pointed out his ‘error’ and all his mates laughed at him for being caught out. We then went to fill up water at the village pump and as I walked over, the girl there fled at the sight of me. Once again, the boys burst out laughing at my effect on the locals, while the girl nervously peeked her head out from behind the door where she was hiding.

Turn On the Lights

Throughout the ride from Labe, I’d been looking forward to the 26km scenic stretch from Donghol Touma where, according to the guidebook, the only effort required would be of putting on the brakes. I was somewhat sceptical and there definitely were the occasional places where I had to pedal. But overall the route was downhill and certainly, it was incredibly scenic – winding through the green, forested hills, granite cliff rising formidably skywards.

Fields of Gold and Violet

Fields of Gold and Violet

We camped the night in pastures where the road flattened out near a small village, not far from what was presumably a sacred circle of trees. With the black night, the sounds from the village were amplified and I could hear the TV from one of the houses. The national power network hasn’t reached this region and so individuals who can afford it obtain power from noisy diesel generators Individuals who can afford it also buy satellite dishes it seems! Being connected to the electricity grid is not necessarily that helpful however. In one of the poorest countries in West Africa, even in the towns, power is not guaranteed and blackouts are common.

Indeed, even in Kindia, Guinea’s second ‘city’ to the capital, the hotel I stayed at in town only had electricity between the hours of around midnight and 6am when someone in Conakry decided to flick on the switch. The rest of the time, the room was lit by a lone candle and trips to the toilet were taken by torchlight. And so it was there I had yet more restless nights… once the power comes on, men can start work on all those jobs that require power – drilling and machining being only some of the sounds that drifted through the slatted window of my bare room. The locals are quite used to this it seems, although the look on the Senegalese restaurant owner’s face when the power cut while I was in the middle of eating my ‘rice gras’ was one of shame. They’re used to it and find ways to work around the inconveniences, but they don’t like it and wish things could be different.

This car didn't make the bend

This car didn't make the bend

Back in the Fouta Djalon however, we continued downhill for the start of a second day – now this was the Fouta Djalon I had imagined. Seemingly endless vistas of hills rising and falling, fading towards the hazy harmattan horizon. A ‘Lost World’ of untouched forest filled by tall plants and vines and creepers and palms. Cliffs and car-wrecks and colourful flora. Rivers and ravines and bright-red fruit on leafless trees. And the cycling was great fun on the rough, rocky terrain – it’s probably a good thing my bike was overloaded with gear and I don’t have a bike helmet since this curbed my desire to ‘bomb it’ down, recklessly, to the bottom. If I had been fully protected on my mountain bike, it seems unlikely I would have made it out of the region in one piece. Instead, I put my efforts into taking photographs at every turn, which slowed progress substantially!

Currency Confusion

The bottom of the hill brought with it another river crossing and once again I set my mind to a fight over the price. ‘10,000 each?’ I repeat incredulously when I’m told how much. That’s extortionate. And so I say we’ll pay 1,000 each. He laughs at me equally incredulously. I explain that we’ve taken plenty of river crossings and they only ever cost between 1,000 and 1,500 (in truth, one cost 2,500 but I wasn’t going to tell him that) so why should this crossing be so much more expensive.

River Crossing

River Crossing

I then ask the local how much he is paying; 10,000 he replies; but he has been listening to the argument from the start. I eventually say that we haven’t got 10,000 each, and with some further hard bargaining we agree to pay 5,000 for the both of us. With this, I go and stand, exhausted, next to Lars who has this whole time been leaning on the boat railing detached from the whole saga. It is only then, that Lars pipes up, ‘but 10,000 isn’t really that much’. I look at him a little confused. He then clarifies – we’re in Guinea-Conakry now and the currency is the Guinea Franc and all the other river crossings were in Guinea-Bissau where the currency is the CFA. With 10 CFA to the Franc, I quickly do the simple maths. It seems I’ve dealt us a real bargain! After the short crossing, I hand over the 5,000 Francs, slightly embarrassed and push my bike away from the river as quickly possible. I feel like I’ve robbed the guy.

It seems that when my legs are tired from the cycling, my brain switches off… I’m truly living up to my sun-bleached blonde appearance. Some who know me, may say this is nothing new and it would be only a matter of time before I showed my true colours.

Nature Smells

The point about ‘wild’ or ‘stealth’ camping, is to find somewhere to pitch your tent where you won’t be found. So before we reached the Telimele-Kindia road, which we assumed would be busier, we decided to camp in a small wooded area by the dirt road. Once the road was clear of people, we sneaked into the wood and once it started to get dark, we stopped lazing around reading and went about putting up the tents. While tucked away in the tent, munching on a mayo sandwich, we heard some rustling of the undergrowth. We sat silently, waiting for the noise again… had we been found? ‘Children?’, Lars whispered. And then I smelt it… that unforgettable farmyard aroma. Cattle. Our camp-site had been invaded by two curious cows. Great. And while one cow crept over to Lars’ tent and with nose-to-canvas, snorted loudly; the other one crashed over to my spot just to take a shit. Unbelievable! That steaming cow-pat really ponged… and really put me off my already unappetizing mayo sandwich. C’est la vie.

Morning coffee?

The following morning, the cows had cleared our camp-spot and we departed also. We cycled the 5km to the junction and saw some men sat round a table on which sat three large Thermos flasks, the tell-tale sign that we could get our morning coffee fix. ‘Good morning, how are you? Do you have coffee?’. Yes, was the definitive response. So having found out the price of a coffee, a feat in itself (that’s a coffee only, no mayo, no bread, just a plain simple cafe-au-lait), we too took our place on the wooden bench. Now, did we want Nescafe? Yes, since there was definitely no espresso machine nearby. Did we want milk with our coffee? Yes, that would be what the ‘lait’ part of cafe-au-lait meant. Ok, is that sweetened, condensed milk or powdered milk? Really, I don’t care. But apparently, whichever milk we want, we have to go to the shop next-door and buy it ourselves. A morning coffee should not be this complicated. We tell the owner to buy the milk himself and so he leaves the table and eventually comes back with a tin of the condensed, sweetened variety. Good. But then he realises that he doesn’t have any Nescafe either. Now, when you said you had coffee, what exactly did you mean? That if we waited long enough, you could buy everything you needed, by which time the hot water in the Thermos would be cold to make an average, understrength, oversweet dark coloured drink? We continue sitting quietly on the bench, outwardly patient, inwardly reaching boiling point. So the man sends a younger guy to buy some Nescafe. He comes back five minutes later with one sachet. Err… we asked for two coffees and that sachet will barely make one drink. Another five minutes pass and the guy returns again from the shop empty-handed – they’ve run out of Nescafe. Help me, please! With this, the man leaves the table again and gets on his motorbike and with dust rising, he disappears in the direction of Telimele, 15km away. That’s it, morning coffee is off. We get up from the wooden bench, get on our bikes and with dust rising, disappear in the opposite direction, towards Kindia. Perhaps we can get coffee in the next village.

Afternoon coffee?

It was lunch-time when we reached the next sizeable village and finally we found a small cafe where we could get a coffee. By now we were hungry enough, to want the more normal coffee-mayo-bread combo. The carefully chosen quiet cafe, soon filled up when the locals spotted the white tourists. An unusual sight in this region, especially at this current time of political instability in the country when foreign governments are advising all people to leave Guinea immediately for fear of a military coup and potential for a civil war. I can happily say, that I experienced no problems while I was in the country and the fears, as yet, remain unfounded. And so, in this dark, now crowded cafe, we finally got to enjoy the caffeine hit, with a small horde of young boys in fake, faded yellow, Brazil football shirts, peering intently through the gaps in the wooden panelling.

Wild-fire

That evening, we found a place to camp in the bush and having collected some wood, set about making a sumptuous (well, high-carb) dinner of pasta. And it was while the pasta was cooking that we heard crackling of the undergrowth nearby.

Imposing cliffs in the Fouta Djalon

Imposing cliffs in the Fouta Djalon

I know that sound, now what is it? It’s not cows at least. And then we saw the smoke. And the flames. There’s a bush-fire and it’s spreading. And it’s spreading in the direction of our camp-spot. Lars thinks we have time to eat dinner, but that’s his stomach talking. I suggest, clearly more concerned about being fried alive, that perhaps we should at least pack everything up ready to make a dash for it to the road. We had just enough time to finish cooking the dinner, before I decided we should evacuate. So with bowl of pasta in one hand, I pushed my bike to the relative safety of the road, Lars following reluctantly, and scoffed the dinner. By now it was dark, save for the fiery orange flames which lit the immediate area and enabled us to push our bikes along the road without the need for torches until we could find a safe, fire-free, place to camp for the night. We found a previously-burnt patch of land near a village, which although we risked being spotted by the locals, it at least meant we wouldn’t be smothered by smoke while sleeping. And so we pitched our tents on the blackened, ash-laden land and slept peacefully until daylight.

The iPod Generation

The 10km cycle to the village of Bangouya turned out to be 2km, which I certainly wasn’t complaining about. Anything that would get me to Kindia quicker, for a rest in a hotel, was a good thing. The slow cycling on the dusty, bumpy, rocky tracks requiring constant concentration to avert crashing on the downhill sections and the even slower uphill sections that required pushing with laboured breathing were taking their toll on my body again.

In Bangouya, we found a shack for our morning coffee and were served by the enthusiastic, charismatic young lad who ran the one-man-show. So while we enjoyed a pleasant coffee in peace without interruptions, the local schoolchildren, girls in pale pink and white checked knee-length dresses and boys in matching khaki short-sleeve shirts and shorts, bought there breakfast through the kiosk window and went on their way to school. A small group of boys sat outside and patiently waited while one of their friends, armed with a small razor blade, carefully trimmed their hair to the latest style, before they too departed for the classroom. At this point the cafe-shack-owner reached for a cassette, placed it carefully in the tape player (do you remember what a cassette tape is? The lad may be the age of the iPod generation, but living in rural Guinea, he is exempt from this classification) and pressed play, and with that, soft reggae music crackled through the old speakers and brightened up the little room. This little shack may have only been six square foot of bare earth enclosed by four haphazardously-constructed walls of wood with a corrugated iron roof, with a bench and small table and rickety shelves, but the young guy running the show clearly had a lot of pride for the place. It was clean and well-ordered and he was definitely doing good business.

Up and Down, Up and Down

After another 40km of up, then down, then up and up some more of dusty roads we finally hit tarmac. Oh so smooth and fast. It would have been even smoother for me, were my front wheel not slightly misshapen with the net effect being that I bob up and down in rapid staccato like a needle on a sewing machine in time with the elliptical revolutions. I really must get it fixed – it’s been like it since St. Louis in Senegal, but since I’ve been mostly off-road riding, I’ve not noticed the uneven ride, because the roads themselves are far more uneven.

Dreaming of a Hot Shower

Since leaving Labe, we had been dreaming about splashing out in a nice, clean hotel with hot shower and tv. We were therefore more than a little disappointed and dejected when we discovered our choice hotel was several kilometres from town. Instead, we settled for a cheap and not even cheerful hotel in the centre, with a bucket shower and filthy shared toilet.

The hotel may not have been much, but Kindia itself I enjoyed. I found my corner of town – a place for morning coffee, a Senegalese restaurant for tasty lunch and dinners, an internet cafe for connecting with the rest of the world and a bar for a relaxing beer while watching life on the streets pass me by. And that was exactly what I needed – a couple of days break before continuing on the road to Freetown…

3 Responses to “ Long Road to Freetown (Part 1) ”

  1. Hi Helen,
    Well done for for reaching six months on the road. Are you going to the Welbodi Partnership when your in Sierra Leone ? ( i assume that’s where it is ). I had a look on their website and it looks like a good place to get some nice pix, maybe even a Welbodi calender ?
    By the way, what’s kpb?

  2. i can’t help it if Wotto’s name and email sre still on here………………….

  3. fabulous part one, bring on part two….

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