24 hours in Conakry
We were sad to leave Dandayah, but it was an undeniable thrill to be moving again, even on the potholey tar to Conakry. Once we hit the highway past Coyah, traffic wasn’t as bad as expected but the policemen were worse. They were reminiscent of Gabon or DRC: self-important power-crazed money-sniffers.
An officer on the outskirts of the capital outside the smelliest market ever didn’t give a fig about the story of our trip, was just looking for a reason to fine us and accused us of a ‘parking infringement’ despite the fact it was the traffic cops who’d told us to pull over there in the first place. The next traffic cop stopped us bang in the middle of a roundabout. We didn’t argue, as he had a long length of pipe he was bashing the sides of vehicles with to reinforce his point of view, but we did call his bluff by all four of us jumping down right in the middle of the traffic jam appearing completely unfazed and ready to park off for an hour if necessary. He got flustered when I flourished our official letter and quickly waved us on.
We had been warned that Conakry was a hectic capital and were bracing ourselves to keep the Trellidors locked, expecting another Douala. Back in the city, it was much hotter and dirtier, the mossies were more annoying and the flies were vile. But only policemen gave us any attitude, the people themselves we found generally to be easy going and keen to chat.
We headed straight for the Guinea-Bissau embassy but it was closed, so I asked next door if we could park outside overnight. The kind caretaker said that was no problem. The building turned out to be the HQ of the President of Guinea, Alpha Condé’s political party. We wondered if the bullet holes in the balcony glass were the result of tensions before the elections last October or those in 2013, but were far too polite to enquire.
A couple of days ago marked the historic appearance of Zola’s first teenage spot, much to Ruby’s delight. Today was Zola’s first teenage strop – well as stroppy as Zola gets i.e. Ruby had to tell me he was really upset about something. Apparently, he felt he was making an effort to be more talkative (our constant plea) and had then been told to be quiet (although Ruby said that we’d addressed that admonition to her, not him, in the middle of negotiating logistical arrangements). Whatever: it was great Zola was verbalising! I gave him a full four-part apology, as we’ve taught them to do (1. I’m sorry 2. It was wrong because… 3. Next time I will rather… 4. Please forgive me.) Ruby was immensely supportive of her brother in his attempts to voice his discontent. I couldn’t have been more proud of both of them.
I fell into bed glad the day was finally over, but reflecting that however shitty, frustrating or dull, as long as we’re moving forward, a day on this trek always feels like an achievement in comparison with the way I used to feel at home, constantly running to stand still, like a hamster on a wheel. Even cooking the evening meal here is a triumph rather than a chore, as I endeavour to keep my kids healthy despite the challenging circumstances. The framing makes it all worthwhile.
In the morning, Ryan and Aruna’s colleague Gabriel from Frotcom Conakry came to see if he could assist us and chatted to Sampson while I went in to the Guinea Bissau embassy. The administrative secretary had shocking news for us: Bissau’s annual Carnaval, that last year took place on 21st Feb, was due to kick off on Friday 5th – in only two days’ time. Eish! I so wanted to see it. My job in SA was community-carnival-creating and my favourite experience on the first year of the trip was the Calabar Carnival in Nigeria. I have a dream involving pan-African carnival collaboration…
The visas were $100 each again, but the laisser-passer for Big Reg was only 200 000 GFr ($22). The problem was that ATMs in Conakry only issue a maximum of $40 (R700) worth of Guinea francs at a time. As I’m being charged R50 by ABSA every time I make a withdrawal, this was a very inefficient way to pay, but there was no other option.
The second problem, Gabriel explained, was that each bank would only issue 1.5million GFr per day to each account; we needed 3.5 million in total for visas so this would delay us 24 hours. We drew 1.5million GFr on our SA account in five tranches, and were walking away thinking we had no choice but to pull the rest tomorrow when I suddenly remembered our UK account, with pounds that my Mom had deposited for emergencies and managed to withdraw another 1.9 million. HOORAY FOR MOM! Gabriel seemed surprised when we asked if it was safe for us to walk back to the truck with 3.4 million GFr in my handbag. He’s from the DRC and finds it very safe here – safe verging on dull. “Nothing ever happens, and there’s no good live music” he bemoaned. Thanks for your help Gabriel, and I’m so sorry we had to rush off before taking a pic to remember you by.
So we came back and counted out all we had, including petty cash in my purse, and found we were only 20 000 GFr short, which we made up in dollars. I went straight in and got the visas issued immediately by Mme Oumou. I also got advice on directions from the Ambassador’s drivers. I was proud that the kids got lot of work done despite heat and traffic fumes and still not feeling well. At the end of the day, all four of us walked back down to the supermarket which luckily accepted our Visa debit card. It was very expensive, so we just got vital supplies, although we did splash out on couple of frozen chickens in an attempt to feed Sampson back up. We were surprised by an English speaker on the till, multilingual accountant Robin Chawla from India, who promised to bring us a regulator for our Liberian gas bottle after he finished work at 8pm – which he duly did, bless him.
I went back to thank Alpha Condé’s staff, who were delighted we’d managed to get visas in 24 hours, and got ‘em giggling. I couldn’t believe how much we’d achieved today against all odds. That night was so muggy and the mossies were appalling. At bedtime, Ruby was tossing and turning in the nose cone and wailed “Mom, I’m melting!”. I promised her that this was very last night we would be so hot and sweaty, as tomorrow we were moving out of the city and heading directly north. But could we get to Bissau in time for carnival?
The Road to Foulamori Day 1: Thursday, to Boké
At Christmas in 2010, when we first bought Big Reg and the dream started to become a rather intimidating reality, Sampson bought the three AA maps that cover Africa: North, South and West. I remember opening them out, overlapping each other, on the floor of the front room. The continent covered the whole carpet.
That week, Sampson and I started mapping the route, vaguely getting an idea of whether it was possible to drive along the coast most of the way, noting roughly which roads we’d take. There were some fuzzy bits, notably parts of northern Angola and crossing the Congo river where alternative routes presented themselves, with no way clearly preferable; but by far the most worrying section was from Guinea to Guinea-Bissau. There just weren’t any roads. Never mind the big red highways, or the blue tarred ones, there weren’t even any yellow dirt ones or white narrow dodgier ones on a direct route.
The Ambassador’s driver had noted the weight of the truck and given strict instructions to drive from town to town on a list he dictated to me, asking only for the town ahead so we wouldn’t get sent on an impassable road. He said if we left early in the morning on Thursday, we’d be there “à dix heures”. Sampson had interpreted this as 10pm but later I reflected that Francophone time is 24 hours, so he meant 10 o’clock the next morning. If you double or treble it to allow for the speed of the truck as opposed to a car, that still meant we could arrive at the weekend. The children’s carnival was on Friday, but the main event only kicked off on Monday. I was optimistic.
We were up at 4am to drive out of the city, which was shockingly cold at that hour. We stopped for breakfast about 9am at a village called Sineya where an elderly man asked if I’d like some oranges. He brought about ten in a calabash, and was very offended when I offered to pay for them “This is Boké county”. Sampson commented that Guinea, unlike Liberia and Sierra Leone, lacks that aura of ‘donor country reliance’. There is a tangible sense of dignity and pride, which occasionally verges on prickly. I don’t blame them – their independence was hard won.
In the market in the city of Boké, 300km north, we stopped to stock up before disappearing into the bush. Back in the provinces, we were happy to find decent veg and sensible prices: R2 a carrot, R10 for 5 potatoes. Trading ladies weren’t impressed by our French and insisted on teaching Ruby and I some of their home language. Passers-by emanated a dignified sense of “We know you’re there but we’re not going to stop and gawk at the foreigners, we’re not savages you know…” I was sorry to be rushing through Maritime Guinea, with no time to explore the inland regions, especially the highlands of Fouta Djallon.
After lunch it was my turn to drive but I accidentally bounced out of Boké onto the dirt road in 4th rather than 2nd, and shook up the truck. Sampson was unhappy richocheting about in the back, and decided he was more comfortable driving. Rather relieved, I returned to the passenger seat and Ruby moved back onto the bench behind us. Five minutes later she looked up and said, “Mom, is that a crack above your window? I can see light.”
Aaarrgh. There was a bunching of the felt that our friend Emmanuel had lined the cab with, in an attempt to soundproof it a little from the noise of the engine, and at the top of each bump, a terrifying gap appeared above the quarter light. “Did I do that?” I asked, aghast. “No,” said Ruby “It’s been there a while, it just got bigger now.”
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach and could see the Carnaval receding as Sampson climbed out to look.
Thank God Ruby noticed it 5km out of town and not another 100km down the dirt road into the bush.
So: Breakdown no. 12. Big Reg turned round and limped slowly back into town before the windscreen fell out completely. We asked around and were told to look for “Monsieur Tolier” opposite the bus station. M. Tolier was not a loquacious fellow, but it was obvious from the outset that he knew what he was doing by the assured way he got stuck in to the task, whipping out the windscreen in the first 10 minutes. A more urbane friend of his came past to chat and said “M. Tolier doesn’t speak much (French) but he’s good at his job.” I said he looked like an expert.
It was 2.30pm and horribly hot, so I was very proud the kids motivated themselves to get down to some school. They did a full day’s work while M. Tolier welded both sides of the cab and added a reinforcing plate. I cooked a dahl with greens praying the windscreen would be replaced before mossie time. A crowd of very young apprentices in filthy T-shirts scrambled all over the bonnet helping to fit the glass back in just before 7pm. Sampson did magic for the boys and Tolier’s friend Abdullai was so delighted he leapt forward and hugged him.
We invited M. Tolier in and thanked him profusely. He was pleased to be given 350 000 GFr (R700) – all the emergency cash I’d got out on one last trip to the ATM “just in case” that morning in Conakry about 100 years ago – though I said he deserved more to have achieved all that in one afternoon: “My husband is a magician, but you are a magician too.”
We discovered his name was in fact Mohamed Kouteh – tolier is the word for welder in the local language – but when I asked whether his surname was spelled with a C or K he didn’t know: “I never learned.” He said we were welcome to stay here overnight “with the boys”. We were shocked to discover the apprentices all slept in the derelict truck next to Big Reg. More shocking was M. Tolier’s lack of concern about this, as if it was the most natural place in the world for kids to sleep. This had so obviously been his life experience, as an apprentice before them. I felt ashamed to be eating chicken that night.
Zola unearthed some clothes and caps from his meagre stash to donate to the small boys. I left them on top of the tool box before pulling out in the dark of the morning.
The Road to Foulamori Day 2: Friday, to just past Wéndou-Mbôurou
We left Boké at dawn, picking up some super fresh bread delivered in a wheelbarrow from the bakery on the way out. Big Reg hit the dirt and started to crawl.
Overnight it seemed like palm trees disappeared, and we were back to grassland, stunned to see even green grass occasionally and trees with leaves falling in the wind. We had suddenly made the transition from tropical Africa to Arabian savannah. It felt like a different planet.
It was the first time I had seen decorated rondavels, with walls either moulded or painted, with stripes of red ochre, tan, blue and white, or very individual patterns. There were also kraals of spiky wood for the herds of cattle that had suddenly reappeared.
It was beautiful but the side to side wobbling in mostly first gear with only occasional forays into third was very wearing. The stony red gravel was reminiscent of the Angolan roads Sampson tackled white-knuckled back in 2013. These days he slaloms round the ridges like a pro, but it’s still super-tiring.
Once we passed a young guy who was filling in a set of deep potholes with stones under the blazing sun. Usually we ignore any such attempts to extort cash, but there are so few vehicles using this road, and I was feeling so very grateful for his selfless effort to spare me one more bone-shaking bump that I passed him 5000GFr (R10) out of the window. He was humblingly overjoyed.
Upstairs in the nose cone, the wooden cupboard that separates the kids’ rooms jolted out and fell on Ruby, so Sampson put it on the roof. This is a testament to the better relationship they have recently attained. In Monrovia, although Ruby needed the extra space, I overruled a suggestion to take it out – back then, I needed to know that I could split them up to keep the peace. The kids splayed out enjoying the extra room and fresh air for the rest of the day.
After 10 hours’ driving, Sampson pulled over in the midst of a barren veld with grass stalks so dry they stood up straight and stiff and spiked straight through our slops like needles. The 3 minute shower I had after all that dust was sheer bliss. We ate more chicken and dahl and a bar of delicious Guinean chocolate for Friday Night Treats while watching half of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. We’d done 70km.
The Road to Foulamori Day 3: Saturday, to Koumbia
We set off again as the sun was rising, me wearing my hoodie and socks for the first time. Brrrrr. Arriving at a settlement, we saw a cluster of beautifully dressed women gathered around a well, the prints of their wraps so bright in the morning light against their ebony skin. North Guinean women seemed slimmer, with supermodel cheek bones and more elaborate head wrappings. A couple of elderly men in long robes and caps were delighted to be greeted in fluent Arabic by Sampson (who once worked in a hospital in Riyadh).
After a few tricks he asked an English speaker, ‘the teacher’, about pumping up water, but the well was too deep. A youngster arrived in matching lime green headphones, gloves and sunglasses. Everyone was warm and friendly – so why didn’t I ask to take a picture of Funky Lime Dude and hope the others might agree to follow? I never regretted not taking a photo so much. That night I wrote in my diary: “Why do I feel so off my game at the moment? My timing seems off. Perhaps it’s because I’m too rattled around.”
The second half of the road to Koumbia was slightly better, maybe we averaged 15kmh. When we stopped at 9am for breakfast it was still cool enough to do T’ai Chi, but by lunchtime it was braindrainingly hot. We could not find the left turn out of Koumbia to Foulamori, and drove up and down the main road looking. When we finally located it, it seemed scarcely more than a goat track.
So much for thinking that if it was a better road we might make it to border today. This path was much slower – back to 5-10kmh – and too narrow for another truck to pass. Fortunately we didn’t see any, only one car. Our progress was snail-like. Big Reg was being overtaken by bicycles.
We did 100km today.
Before we left Koumbia, we filled up with water at a communal well. It had to be hand pumped, and took over an hour, but we didn’t want to risk breaking down without full tanks. On the plus side it was in the shade and good exercise for the kids who’d been stuck in the truck for days. Little local kids joined in, and it was great that Ruby was able to reward them all for their help with her stash of 35 bangles made from the loom bands that she’d got for Christmas in UK the year before last!
Sampson was taking strain, with the relentless need to concentrate on the gruelling road. When he pulled over at 4.30pm, the road carried on moving past his eyes. We were all feeling nauseous with little appetite. Luckily Ruby was loving the romance of Rebecca and looking forward to seeing the end. After the movie, she came for her goodnight cuddle and said “You’re my best friend”. Awwwwwww.
At least the evening temperatures were dropping. This was the first night back in proper sleeping bags. But I woke in the small hours feeling as dizzy as if I’d just stepped off a fairground ride.
The Road to Foulamori Day 4: Sunday, to the border
After the shake, rattle and roll of the road over the last few days, we needed to come round a bit and decided on a slower start. I was in the shower when the farmer arrived. He invited Sampson to see his orange orchard and came back with handfuls, so of course Sampson started juggling.
He also had a crop of cashews. But just one mouthful of this gorgeous ripe fruit gave me intense indigestion. Seems I’m allergic to this as well!
I was still dizzy which was making everything feel a bit surreal. When a taxi passed by with the trunk open and flapping, I noticed there was a cow in the boot. A COW IN THE BOOT.
Sampson pulled over by a river at lunchtime and when he and Zola went for a splash, big monkeys mimicked their movements. This was the second day I lay down and crashed out for 15 minutes after eating. I woke really not feeling well. We stood on the bridge and had a family conference. I was conscious of the fact that if there wasn’t a carnival to get to, we would simply take a break and park off by this river for day or two. But I said even if it’s hopeless, even though I feel seriously rattled and desperately need at least one day of stillness, I really want to try and get to Bissau in time. My husband was very supportive, and said we should give it a go: “We’ve rushed many a time to make a swell.” The kids agreed, bless them, even though I could tell Zola was sorely tempted to take the water-based option.
We stole another 10 minutes in the leafy cool under the bridge: Ruby stripped to her knickers for a dip and Sampson got completely naked and sat in the middle of the stream. I stuck my head in the icy water to cool my brain and immediately felt better. Three days being thrown about as if in a tumble dryer on full heat would be tough on anybody, but I was beginning to worry we’d all be permanently concussed. Forever afterwards ‘the road to Foulamori’ will be a byword for endurance in our family.
The truck’s sound system had blown so I suggested we play Botticelli. This turned out to be a brilliant idea, and carried us through the next tortuous two hours. Zola was surprisingly crafty, challenging us by choosing to be ‘Dylan Moran’ and ‘Simon Pegg’.
Suddenly there was a sign and we were there: Foulamori! The border police and customs guys thawed OK, but the last gendarme was harder to impress. He said the idea of driving from Conakry to Bissau in 24 hours was rubbish; it never took less than two days in the dry season, and up to a week in the wet. A question about my husband’s job led to a demonstration of magic which got him in the end. He leaned out under the low boma and called to his colleagues across the road “Venez – il y a un blanc qui fait miracles!”
Big Reg rolled on another couple of kilometres into no man’s land, until we found a flat space to park. I walked 10 minutes down the road with Zola in the evening cool feeling utterly exhausted. He, of course, was still bouncy.
We’d done 50km. The main Carnaval day was tomorrow and 400km away. Could we possibly still make it to Bissau in time to see any of it?