The official language in Liberia is English but I don’t recognise what I’m hearing. The Liberian accent is very thick, and the people speak very fast. It’s like listening to Creole. Nevertheless, I understand the official who tells me I don’t look anything like my age, announcing the reality to all and sundry and I otherwise successfully navigate the immigration process. Unfortunately, the car (with driver Maladho) doesn’t. It’s not a designated tourist vehicle and therefore requires an import licence they say. I haven’t a clue if this is bona fide information or not, but after much car inspection and cosy talks with Amanda, the customs officer, the car is given a temporary import licence. The certificate says gratis, but it’s cost 35 dollars. My new guide Edwin (but ‘Call me Smith) says they originally asked for a thousand. It’s a baptism of fire for Smith, who is sweating profusely.
I’m assured that’s it, immigration wise, but it isn’t. We have one more stop at the frontier where my details are entered in yet another ledger by the police (it’s already been done by immigration and the health authorities). Then there are two more stops on the road, within fifteen minutes, for the immigration people to enter exactly the same details.
The American Colonization Society founded Liberia as a place for free African Americans to migrate to. In 1821 the United States government sent Doctor Eli Ayres to the Pepper or Grain Coast of West Africa, to buy territory ‘discovered’ by Samuel Bacon. This valuable land was purchased at gunpoint from the tribal chief King Peter. Soon after this purchase, the would-be colonists, returned slaves, and their stores were landed on Providence Island and Bushrod Island, in the middle of the Mesurado River. The settlers fought off attacks from King Peter and took possession of the highlands behind Cape Mesurado, thereby founding present-day Monrovia, which was named after U.S. President James Monroe. It became the second permanent African American settlement in Africa, after Freetown, Sierra Leone. More than 10,000 made the journey across the Atlantic, aided by the society, until Liberia declared independence form the society (and the USA) in 1847. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a freed slave from Virginia, became the first president.
Liberia's recent history has been far more torrid, starting with Samuel Doe’s coup of 1980, and continuing with years of civil war and the despotic rule of Charles Taylor, which ended in 2003. The Ebola outbreak of 2014, now officially over, once again put its recovery on the back foot.
Over 50 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Ebola had a large impact on schools and the economy and literacy rates are low.
Safe probably – the FCO don’t prohibit it but there are internet warnings about violent crime and not travelling at night. Comfortable – no. There’s too much hassle from corrupt police, who don’t understand the concept of tourism, but have evolved countless ways to fleece tourists. So few visit Liberia that neither the World Bank, nor the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), have figures for foreign arrivals. Don’t expect proper hotels (in the Western sense) outside Monrovia.
Corruption in Liberia rules ok. We’re stung for two further bribes at police checkpoints, because ‘it’s a foreign car’, despite all the paperwork. Driver Maladho is due to leave me at the border with the Ivory Coast and had been intending to return by the same route to Conakry as the roads are so much better than the ones in Guinea, which still runs along the Liberian border, to the north. However, he declares that he has now decided to endure the ruts and bumps of Guinea, rather than face the vultures in Liberia again.
Each town we pass through is heaving with traffic and shoppers. All manner of cargo is transported through the streets. Even Maladho squeals with delight when he sees a sheep strapped to a motor bike. The ground in these areas is strewn with rubbish. As in many African countries the shop walls are covered with pictures of the services offered, to cater for those who can't read. The road however is thankfully a good one. Further east, more rural scenes, hill country and little villages that are both pretty and tidy. The mud huts are patterned in traditional colours: ochre, cinnamon and white, each one different. The villagers stare, gently curious as I wander round, shyly responding to a smile.
Liberia is orientated north-west/south east on the corner of West Africa so:
My guest house near the border with Cote D'Ivoire, at Ganta, is painted a violent green, but it is unexpectedly comfortable. I’ve even been given a VIP suite and I can’t spot any mould anywhere. Christmas Eve lunch is a huge curry.
Guide Smith tells me that he’s done his job and he’s not staying tonight. This is news to me. The guides have always accompanied me right to the border and we’ve had unprecedented hassle in this country, so I remonstrate and send messages to my agents. Smith isn’t happy about staying - I don’t blame him - it is Christmas, so I feel sorry for him. My agent messages to say that he has arranged for a hotel employee to accompany us to the border, so Smith need not stay. And the frontier is only an hour and a half away.
It’s my last day with Maladho and it’s Christmas. So, I’m treating him to a last round of Bob Marley.
Smith has foregone all my sympathy. He stayed and partied all night instead of returning to his family. He also refuses to pay for my food, even though the programme says it’s included. No alternative guide is forthcoming, despite all the promises, so we set off unaccompanied. Smith has disappeared. No need to worry about whether to tip him or not.
Maladho delivers me to the frontier, which turns out to be just up the road. Except that from the immigration lady’s perplexed expression when I tell her I’m going to Ivory Coast I deduce it’s the wrong one. This is the border with Guinea. Maladho has no idea where the correct route is, and we ask numerous passers-by and bounce along the rutted road for what seems like an eternity; there are a surprising number of junctions and no signposts at all. And the tarmac has disappeared. It’s only a kilometre up the road, says everyone we meet, waving their thumbs. It’s a great way to spend Christmas morning. On and on, through creeper covered rainforest and fans of bamboo, trying to find a frontier post. Bob is singing ‘Everything little thing’s going to be all right.’ I’m feeling Rescue Remedy might be called for.
Finally, over three hours later we arrive. No sign of my new guide. The immigration men tell me that as it’s Christmas and I’m travelling like the Wisemen I should be bringing them gifts. I smirk and stand my ground. But then the customs officials go to town. The extortion here is medicine related. Apparently, my vitamins are suspect narcotics. My new guide, Francis from Cote D'Ivoire, turns up like the cavalry and sorts that out. I assume he paid them. I can’t wait to leave this country.
The kindest way to describe guide Smith is to liken him to a headless chicken. He really does look as if he’s running around in circles squawking. He has a rucksack proclaiming that he’s an instructor at the school of sightseeing and tourism. I don’t know what to say except I’m glad I didn’t get one of the students.
We've driven from Robertsport. Monrovia arrival delivers us to the midst of three lines of Piaggi three-wheeler taxis abreast, on the edge of a huge and very busy market which spills onto the road. The Monrovians are out doing their Christmas shopping. A few vendors are wielding strings of tinsel, but most of the purchases seem to be clothes.
The Monrovia taxi slogans cover assorted topics - I love Chelsea, God is Depenable (sic) and the enigmatic You Make Fun Cry Blood. I’m not sure I’d want to get into that one.
Maladho picks his slow way though the throng with his usual stoicism, while the little taxis zip in and out and have to be braked for every five seconds.It takes an hour and a half to creep through the market and I breathe a sigh of relief when we finally reach the end, but it’s short lived. The next section of the road through the port area, famous for the amount of shipping registered here is just as congested, though now it’s trucks and cars weaving in and out. And then there’s another commercial area. It takes three hours in all to cross the city to my hotel, an oasis by the water.
Smith has abandoned me, saying we will tour Monrovia tomorrow. He’s also told me to order lunch and put it on the bill and not given me any other guidance. So, it’s lobster and chips again, in a very classy restaurant. It’s a nice hotel and it even has a swimming pool that looks clean. Christmas is in full swing. The lobby is tastefully decorated with trees and snowmen and a brass band has been playing carols outside the gate.
The highlight of my tour of Monrovia involves a visit to the Centennial Pavilion where presidents are inaugurated. It’s bedecked in red white and blue and draped with Liberian flags. These are almost identical to the American flag, except they have just one large star instead of fifty. There are busts and photos of all 20 presidents to admire.
Providence Island is a UNESCO heritage site marking the landing of the freed slaves in Liberia. The island is squashed below a bridge over the River Mesurado that bisects the city. The traffic crawls overhead and the site is as yet undeveloped. Which is just as well as there are no guides to be found.
To my surprise the other key sight on my Monrovia itinerary is an eerie abandoned hotel. Once one of West Africa’s most lavish hotels, the Ducor Palace, pre- civil war, was the largest in Africa (I’m told). It was popular with moneyed tourists, visiting dignitaries and business people, but political uncertainty led to its closure in 1989 and the former five-star resort has since become home to local squatters. Smith bribes the man at the gate to let us in and poses on the crumbling terrace. There are great views across town, though I'm not convinced the stairs are safe, so I'm ruling out higher elevations.
Opposite is a huge white marble edifice, the most impressive building in the city, the Masonic Temple. I am shouted at by a security guard, when I lean through the railings to take a picture. (See up top!)
The next day east to the border with Cote D'Ivoire and on to Man.
Several surfing beaches can be found in and around the capital, Monrovia, but the coastal town of Robertsport, around 50 miles from the capital, has been described as the greatest undiscovered surf spot in Africa, offering vast stretches of deserted beaches.
I've driven from Kenema in Sierra Leone visit Robertsport, overnighting at a beach lodge. It’s yet another town at the end of a long peninsula, the bay lined with mangroves and full of those little frilly islets that proliferate on the corner of West Africa. A large fishing village runs alongside the dock. It’s grim and grey and Dickens would describe the rickety corrugated metal and wood dwellings as hovels. The streets are lined with large metal drums used to dry the fish. My welcome is varied and always cautious.
We turn a corner and the austerity is relieved by vividly painted boats reflected in the calm water and a meticulously decorated pair of buildings dedicated to Barcelona football club. This apparently is Camp Nous. There are smokeries in a grey compound adjacent to the village. The women who work here keep their belongings padlocked in the concrete cubicles round the perimeter of the smokery, which they sleep in at night. Grimmer than the Victorian workhouse.
Driver, Maladho now expects me to translate for him, as he’s having an argument with guide, Smith as (for some reason) Maladho has the cash to pay for my Robertsport lodgings. But some of it is in CFA and not the required dollars. Maladho instructs me to tell Smith to accept the CFA. Instead, I retreat to stash my belongings in a wooden chalet bungalow on a more than passable stretch of yellow sand.
There’s only one item on the menu - lobster and chips; I reflect that there could be worse choices. The food is good and I’m feeling more relaxed now, as I head back up to my bungalow for my swimming gear. Beach loungers are beckoning. Except that the key won’t turn in the lock and it’s not just me being inept. Two men fetch a pair of shears and cut into the wire mesh over the window, so that they can reach in and open the door. I’m now in the adjacent bungalow, trying to decide if I can face lobster and chips for dinner as well.
I wake to see gangs of fishermen hauling huge nets and coiling them on the beach. Breakfast is eggs and greasy bacon on the beach, the first bacon I’ve seen since I left home. Smith and Maladho are ready waiting; they slept on mats on the beach last night.
Now we are driving to Monrovia
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