This second part of the journey from Labe to Freetown, takes me from Kindia to the border with Sierra Leone, where I camped the night in No Man’s Land.
The final part of the journey, from the border to Freetown, I’ll post in a third update.
Sorry it’s taking so long – there are too many distractions in Freetown!
Fear of Leaving in Kindia
Two days in Kindia wasn’t enough of a rest for me and so I decided to stay one more night. Lars on the other hand, who also wasn’t feeling 100%, wanted to ride out of town to relax in the relative peace of the bush. And so with that, we went our separate ways with the intention of meeting again in Freetown.
Once Lars had left, I went back to the Senegalese restaurant, where by now I was a well-recognised regular. It was there that I met Ward, a Belgium NGO worker who has been working in Kindia for a few years. We exchanged stories and he then proceeded to tell me that cycling over the border into Sierra Leone was a very dangerous thing to do alone given the current situation. I was well aware that tensions in this part of the Guinea, so close to Conakry, are running high ever since the military opened fire on people at a pro-democracy protest, killing 150 people; and then with the recent assassination attempt on Captain Camara, who has been running the country since he took over power in a coup earlier in the year. Ward however proceeded to warn me about rebels from Sierra Leone and Liberia, amassing at the border and mercenaries from South Africa who are waiting in a town near Conakry for a coup d’etat. He then proceeded to explain that the road to Makeni in Sierra Leone is in terrible condition and dangerous to travel along, and as if for proof he pointed out that it was on this road that he hit rocks on his motorbike and fell off resulting in a broken arm.
It’s true to say, by the time I had finished my lunch, I was more than a little wary and concerned about leaving Kindia for the ride into Sierra Leone. At the back of my mind, I was sure there would be no problems – I’m used to cycling on bad roads and the point of stealth camping is that you don’t get found. On the other hand, what if I did bump into some unsavoury characters on the road? Making a quick getaway, when on a bike, is out of the question. What if fighting broke out in the border area? I’m well used to scare-stories from people who either don’t have all the facts, or have very little idea about the reality of cycling through the countryside, but this time I too was a bit worried. Probably for no other reason than for the first time in weeks, I was again alone. It’s true that travelling with someone else, you feel much safer; the reality is though that in the event of bumping into rebels with guns and you’re with someone else, it just means two of you are in trouble, not just one.
I left Kindia the day after Lars and cycled off on the smooth tarmac road, leaving the town behind. And as the noisy, busy streets gave way to small houses with the locals waving and smiling, I took a deep breath and felt my worries floating away. There’s something about the freedom of cycling with everything you need to be self-sufficient packed on the back of the bike. Life seems simple and I feel care-free.
Hitting Gravel Hard
The first 25km were on asphalt, free-wheeling fast along the winding hillside road through forest of tall trees which occasionally gave way to impressive panoramas of the hills and valleys beyond. I then took the gravel road towards the border village of Madina-Oula, which turned out to be the smoothest gravel-dirt road I have been on this entire trip. I’ve no idea how Ward had managed to fall off his bike; there was barely a rock bigger than my thumbnail to hit!
While taking a short break to eat biscuits and orange, a young man in a thick green overcoat walked past me pushing his bike up the hill. I offered him some food, which he gratefully took and continued on his way. Another young man soon followed, also pushing his bike. He was moments too late, as I had just finished the last of my snacks.
I got back on the bike and within minutes had caught the men up. We said hello again and continued the journey together. First one of the men would pedal hard to find a spot in front; but not wanting to be left behind, the other would, with a short burst of energy, race ahead, dodging the occasional ruts in the road. Slightly amused by this show of sorts, I just quietly pedalled along on the other side of the track. And it was while the man in the white shirt was making one of these overtaking manoeuvres that the man in the green padded overcoat (he must have been really hot) swerved slightly. And moments later, the two bikes were one large intertwined tangle of metal and the two men were slowly getting up from the ground they had hit hard,brushing gravel and dust off their clothes and inspecting their cuts and grazes.
I checked the two were OK, who were now arguing over who’s fault it was and so to diffuse the situation I commented that they were now as dusty-looking as me but it really wasn’t necessary to crash to get this desired look. Both men looked at me, clearly unimpressed, so I decided I may as well get on my way as there was nothing else I could do to help.
Oranges for Biscuits
I had one final river to cross in Guinea, before reaching the border. For this, there was a motorised chain ferry. I sat on the railing next to my bike while I waited for a couple of taxis overloaded with passengers to board and the ensuing arguments over costs to fade. I was the focus of all the children’s attention, who were all fascinated by my white skin and blonde hair. It was only when they kept trying to touch my hair that one of the mothers scolded them and told them to play elsewhere. This was not the first time in Guinea that I had seen parents actively disciplining children, but Guinea is the only country so far where I have seen this kind of disciplining. The people of Guinea seem to have a strong sense of self-respect and pride, unlike I have seen in other countries. Perhaps it is this discipline at an early age that has contributed.
Just before the ferry pulled off the bank, the man with the green overcoat pushed his bike on board. He waved hello and before I knew it, was passing me a couple of oranges he had just bought. I sucked the juice from the partially-peeled fruit, just as the locals do, just in time to have two hands free to wheel my bike onto the other bank.
Border Confusion and Cocaine
I arrived in Madina-Oula and cycled straight through to the barrier marking the border. I didn’t see the control post or indeed any official so I pushed my bike round the barrier and parked it outside a building that the locals were pointing me in the direction of. I went to the open door and knocked. No response. I slowly went in, the room was empty save for the desk and chair with some papers stacked on it. I went out again to look for someone in uniform.
At this point, a policeman came jogging over and ushered me back into the room. Here we went through the usual formalities and questioning before he then got up from the desk and told me to follow him. We went back to the Guinea side of the barrier and into another room where a stern-faced military man sat. There ensued the most confusing conversations as I tried to explain I was wanting to leave Guinea and not just arriving from Sierra Leone as it looked since I was on the other side of the barrier with my bike facing in the wrong direction. I suppose it did look a little confusing. He asked if I was carrying cocaine or guns in my bag, which I flatly denied. And he then stamped my passport and told me to pay and there would be no serious problems.
Pay?! ‘I’m not paying anything,’ I exclaimed standing over the desk. ‘But you must pay me. Then you will have no serious problems,’ he explained, firmly gripping my passport. ‘I’m not giving you any money,’ I repeated forcefully and sat back down in defiance, ready for a long wait. Eventually, he gave up on trying to obtain a bribe this way and said ‘Fine. I must check your bags. It could be serious.’ ‘Fine,’ I said and went to get my bike.
The next ten minutes were spent with me slowly opening one pannier at a time and with every item I removed, he would demand loudly ‘what’s this?’ and then ‘what’s it for’. Now this was really rather boring – my books were clearly books which are clearly meant for reading and a tent is obviously meant for sleeping in and a water carrier is non-too-surprisingly used for carrying water. And so it went on, until his heavily-built superior arrived and demanded to know what the problem was. I explained that he was searching my bags for cocaine (perhaps not the smartest response, but the whole saga seemed a bit farcical to me). The superior asked if I was carrying cocaine to which I replied, ‘of course not’ and he proceeded to shout at the military man doing the searching and took my passport off him. He then carefully handed it to me and in a sincere voice apologised for the behaviour of his officer. I said, ‘No problem’ and ‘Good evening’ and with that, got on my bike and pedalled around the barrier with the shouting from the the superior slowing dying away as I cycled into No Man’s Land.
Alone in No Man’s Land
With seven miles to the Sierra Leone border post and the light quickly fading, I decided to find a place to camp in No Man’s Land, somewhere I wouldn’t be found by any rebels that might be hiding out in the vicinity. And with that, I pulled off the track, pushed my bike through the bush and found a clearing under some large trees where I would be sufficiently well-concealed from view of the road, and settled down for the evening….