First of all Happy New Year to everybody from Freetown!
Much has happened in the last days and we can state that we have found our favourite country so far – Guinea Conakry! The rough dirt roads, welcoming locals, excellent hiking and amazing scenery will stay for us for a long time to come. But let’s start where we left off.
We left Bissau on good tarmac towards the border with Guinea in the east. Police checkpoints were more than frequent and usually friendly. One exception was a young lady going through all the functions of our car with a big fat grin on her face until she found something that did not work – our windscreen washer pump. That little useless thing which always rusts through in no time on a Land Cruiser was to be the reason for a juicy fine. Obviously we did not want to give her this satisfaction and discussed for about 10 minutes with two more police officers until she finally got that we were not going to pay for her next supper. Eventually she let us go without a trace of the fat grin left and we were proud to have ruined her day.
Apart from that the drive was fine until Gabu where the tarmac turned into a potholed nightmare with second gear max. A bit up the road we came on a guy with a shovel and a self-made checkpoint consisting of a rope across the street covered with old plastic bags – police checkpoints look no different in this part of the world. He was filling in the potholes by hand with new gravel and asked for a little donation towards his work. We were delighted by the idea and somebody actually tackling an issue so we gladly gave him something and enjoyed many kilometres of filled in potholes further ahead. Shortly before the border to Guinea we set up wild camp in beautiful surroundings teeming with birds.
The border crossing was a breeze with friendly officials on both sides. Once in Guinea the road deteriorated much further into some of the roughest driving we have done on this trip so far. About 50km before Labé the tarmac started again but before that it was very slow going. Halfway through we blew a shock absorber and had to slow down even more which resulted in 70km driven in 7,5 hours that day. The landscape of the northern Fouta Djalon was amazing though with very little inhabitants apart from some Fula herders with their cattle and tiny settlements built exclusively in the traditional way with one large round hut surrounded by several smaller ones consisting of mud with thatched roofs. The road was leading over vast plateaux dotted with giant termite hills, through rolling hills with rock formations and dense forest with hanging liana and palm groves where springs emerged. Completely overloaded taxis with more than 3 times their normal height of luggage and people sometimes overtook us racing through the forest.
One of the rare checkpoints in the north of the country gave Fabian a hard time because the good lady in Dakar wrote 2013 instead of 2014 and thereby let our vehicle insurance expire before it was even valid. The big military guy with his golden tooth clearly understood that it was not actually expired but saw his chance to grab some money from us ”Americans”. He was quite intimidating yelling around with his brainless soldiers all around him but Fabian eventually lured him back to the car with the promise of a lighter but left him with a handshake as he grabbed our papers from his other hand. The guy must have been impressed by this “boldness” and let us move on.
Labé is the main settlement in the northern Fouta Djalon with the biggest permanent market. Hundreds of motorbikes race through its streets honking permanently and one clearly has to watch out not to be run over as a pedestrian. We spent a day in Labé and absolutely loved to get lost in the narrow alleys of the market area reminiscent of the souks in Morocco just without any hassle and hundreds of tiny stores. Prices for vegetables and fruit were finally reasonable again after expensive Senegal and Guinea-Bissau and the fertile soils of the Fouta Djalon guaranteed a broad variety.
And then it was already Christmas evening which we decided to spend at some waterfalls west of Labé. The day was spent climbing around the first falls of the Chutes de Sala and swimming in the freezing plunge pool. Afterwards we took a completely overgrown track to the lookout point of the second falls which dropped from an impressive height down onto the rocks. Small monkeys were climbing around the edges of the cliff making funny noises. We put up camp and treated ourselves to our by now half mouldy Butterstollen (German Christmas bread) and a feast of gyros style beef, tiny potatoes and fresh salad. It is fair to say that there was no Christmas mood whatsoever but we anyway could not imagine a nicer place to have spent the day at.
From Labé we headed down towards Pita and then turned southwest to take in the beautiful drive to Telimelé. First stop was to be Doucki where we wanted to do some hiking. Hassan grew up in Sierra Leone and therefore speaks English very well and is leading visitors on hikes with different themes around the Doucki Canyon. We were welcomed by his lovely family at his compound and settled into one of the bungalows. The evening was spent with a great bunch of American Peace Corps volunteers and a British NGO who stayed several days in Doucki for the hiking. As Christmas is being celebrated on the 25th in the States we had our second celebration this time even with Christmas songs thanks to Jesse and Kenny.
The decision was made to go on the Indiana Jones hike the next day. Hassan’s brother led us and the other guys through beautiful landscapes with dense forest, golden grass fields and huge rock formations to the edge of Doucki Canyon with an amazing view over the valley and the sheer cliffs around. On the way we could climb lianas, had to squeeze through narrow rock passages and traverse small streams. It was a fascinating experience and highly recommended to anyone visiting Guinea! In retro perspective we should have stayed at least another day for the Chutes and Ladders hike.
So we were off again and as the sun was slowly setting came to a river crossing with a hand hauled ferry. Hand hauled meant in this case that guys with large sticks were pulling the heavy barge across on a steel rope high above them. It was a busy crossing at that time of the day as all the market women of the nearby village were on their way home. We eventually found an uninhabited spot on a plateau for the night. The following day we drove to Kindia and decided to stay away from the tarmac as we had done so far and take an alternative route towards the border with Sierra Leone. The track wound its way through yet another beautiful landscape with intensive agricultural usage and extremely friendly locals who were clearly happy to see foreign visitors and welcomed us with many waves and big smiles. The night was spent in a dense forest with the village elder coming by in the evening to see what we were up to. Not for the first time we asked if we could stay over the night and were welcome to do so. Guinea has been brilliant wild camping country in general with amazingly scenic spots and kind, understanding people.
A short stop after passing through a village to photograph a waterfall in the distance led to a group of children running towards us keen to lead us there. All of them wanted their photo taken and then took us by the hands through Cassava fields to the falls. We enjoyed a refreshing dip and waterfall shower together with the children who had a great time posing for pictures.
And then we were off towards the border with Sierra Leone. All in all we have driven less than 100km on sealed roads in Guinea and enjoyed every minute of piste driving.
Our experiences in Sierra Leone will have to wait till the next blog entry as we already created a wall of text again.
PS: We finally updated the country info section to include anything useful about Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau and uploaded more photos of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and a sneak preview of Sierra Leone!