Conakry to Freetown Troubles

Conakry to Freetown

Following the 2008 contest in Guinea, Roger G3SXW, Fred G4BWP and Vince K5VT hired a car and driver to go to Freetown, Sierra Leone on a recce trip to plan for the following year. Roger G3SXW picks up the story:

Along the way we encountered for the first time real risks. On previous cross-country trips we have been hassled and bribes have been demanded, frustrations, but never really any danger. Read on!

Drug Smugglers

The road to the border was fine. Within a few miles of the border we were stopped three times by Guinean customs and each time had to pay 10,000 GNF ($2). Most of these people were unfriendly, even nasty. We reached immigration – no problem with that. Then all four of us were asked to enter an open-sided hut where we were informed that they were drug enforcement officers. Six people in uniforms watched while the un-uniformed boss man conducted the search. He was polite and professional throughout but extremely firm – he was definitely in charge! We pretended not to speak French so our driver translated.

The boss-man immediately went for the drivers bag and immediately found a plastic bag of weed (hashish?) about 2-3 handfuls plus a tissue-wrap of something else in his pocket. He was arrested with a hand-cuff around one ankle. He claimed that he did not know it was in his bag – he had picked up his brother’s bag by mistake. This seemed to us just a face-saving exercise.  We were informed that the law states that anyone in a vehicle found to contain drugs is deemed to be an accomplice therefore we were all under arrest, but we three were spared the hand-cuffs. The car was impounded, papers and keys.

He then conducted a meticulous two-hour search of everything, checking each square inch including the contents of our pockets. He found cash dollars and stated that we should have declared them (nonsense, of course). In the process he got a pretty fair idea of how much cash we all had on us. Then followed the preparation of a statement: he wrote all names, passport numbers, details of the car, etc filling one side of plain paper. During this whole process we privately predicted that the outcome would be a large bribe and that would be the end of it but it was very nerve-wracking: theoretically we could all be escorted back to Conakry, to jail. Then after the search boss-man said that he would allow us to go free with our luggage but that the driver and vehicle would be impounded. Great – stranded in the middle of nowhere with no means of transport except bush-taxis!

After finishing the ‘report’ that he would send to Conakry, he pondered for a few moments and then made a speech which offered to ‘end it here and now’ We agreed that we would prefer that. He came straight out with it: give me $500. We consulted and offered him $100 each, total $300. He would have none of that. We then offered to meet him half-way: $400. He would have none of that. We paid the $500 – all very transparent with the others watching. Actually, I think we were relieved at this point not just that we were avoiding the worst possible outcomes but that it was so cheap. We feared a much higher sum. He knew at this stage that we had far more on us that. We paid and were instantly released and on our way. The paper on which was written the report was torn to little pieces and burned.

The psychology was fascinating. He had built up the whole situation, making it all very serious, so as to ramp up the price. We all knew the outcome would be a payment, but he spent over two hours to ensure a significant sum. Throughout this confrontation he remained seemingly friendly, superficially. Occasionally he would ask if we had a problem and we had to dutifully reply that we had no problem. The driver meantime stayed cool, but was sweating a lot.

We went on our way with yet another experience under our belts, short of $500 and three hours of travel time. On the return just two days later he welcomed us like long lost friends and demanded 20,000 GNF ($4) just as a tip. Fred had paid this $500 and we will now go through the tortuous process of trying to get it back from the driver’s mother in Maryland. If that fails it will have to be treated as a kitty expense. The driver informed his boss and father of the situation and the boss promised us that it would be repaid. Who is this boss? None other than Mr Camara, the guy who issues the 3X licences and who we got to know very well on this trip. We had already presented him with a watch as a gift to express our appreciation for all his help, with which he was mightily impressed. So there is a relationship and some trust there, so we are hopeful that it will be re-paid. If not each 3X5A operator has lost $62.

Entering Freetown

Throughout this journey we found Guinean uniforms unpleasant, even nasty or angry. On the Sierra Leone side we found them polite and even deferent. We were driving fast to try and catch up lost time and get to the hotel by sunset. Near to Freetown there was a road-side police stop and we were pulled over. Three officers told the driver that he was driving too fast and took him into an office. The driver was back in a few minutes saying that he had to sign some paper but no money was paid, and we were on our way.

By this time it was getting dark. We got to the central part of town and had to get right through to the other side at Cape Sierra. The traffic almost ground to a halt and then we found ourselves in a market street with barely any other traffic around us but packed solid with pedestrians, filling the whole width of the street. No animosity or threat, just a sea of people. He drove forward for a half-mile at 2mph beeping his horn constantly on full head-lights. An amazing experience! We then established that our driver, a Sierra Leonean, hadn’t been to Freetown for ten years – the place has mushroomed so that he barely recognised the streets. Better local knowledge could have helped us to find an easier route, but after all we were arriving at peak shopping rush-hour.

Car Problems

By this stage the exhaust was getting really noisy. No problem: he would take the car very early in the morning to get it welded. We had a meal and fell into our beds at Bintumani Hotel. Next morning he showed up an hour late with many apologies but no explanation and without having fixed the exhaust. We went to see the licensing people and then got around to some hotels in the morning but as the day wore on the car cut out more & more often and the battery wasn’t charging. We told him to go and fix the car, around 2pm. He came back to say that the dynamo needed re-winding. We gave him cash and sent him to do it. He came back to say it was not the dynamo but it needed a new battery, which is what we had suspected all along. We had to put up the cash ($130, to be recouped from the owner in Conakry) and finally both the exhaust and the much more important problem of the electrics were solved.

But these problems effectively reduced us to one half-day of movement around Freetown so our recce was limited. Actually this was not a disaster as we had checked the most likely hotels on Cape Sierra and in Aberdeen and had quickly found that the two highest on our list were indeed the most suitable. We had the evening with Zbig and slept. The driver was told to pick us up at 6am. He arrived at 6.30am and we left Freetown. At that time of day the congestion was much less. But all along the way it was hassle, hassle, hassle. The driver had almost no money, we had to keep giving him whatever things cost, in advance. Each of the four times he was supposed to pick us up at the hotel he was late. There was also a petrol shortage with long queues at filling-stations and several closed with no fuel. At one point we secured two gallons from a hand-pumped filling-station outside of town. Just a lot of low-level stress.

In the Grass

We quickly cleared the good highway and started on the rough road. This is mostly dried out mud where previous vehicles in rainy season have badly churned it up. Most of the surface had dried out, leaving odd patches fairly flat but mostly pot-holed with occasional deep holes. The driver negotiated these as best as he could, varying from 5 to 15 mph, using the whole width of the (quite wide) road. There was very little other traffic, just occasional bush-taxis (cars). Once in a while we would come across a short flat piece where the surface was more sand and gravel, rather than mud. We could pick up to 30-40mph at these times just for a minute or two.

We reached one such flat piece, following in the dust trail of another car, and picked up speed. He couldn’t see far enough ahead due to the dust and suddenly realised that the flat bit was again turning to serious pot-holes. He swerved quite violently to the right to avoid a big hole, and then immediately to the left to avoid the next one, by which time we were slowing quickly. But, you guessed it, the rear-end came around (anti-clockwise) and we slid across the gravel to the far side of the road, facing the way that we had come. Fortunately there were no other cars or pedestrians in our way. We were finally halted by leaving the road, on the far side. This involved a one-foot drop off the road into long grass. The two right-hand wheels hit the grass, then the left-hand side of the car reared up. We were convinced that it would roll, or at least tip on its side. It must have reached close to 45 degrees before crashing back down on its four wheels. If that drop into the grass had been a few inches deeper we would certainly have rolled.

We got out, in something of a daze, the driver quickly reversed out and back across to our side of the road. At this point we realised that the front right-side tyre was deflated. This was not a blow-out, the impact had merely ripped the tyre away from the wheel-rim. John Arthurs where are you when we need you, haha? It took an hour to wrestle the spare wheel off from its rusted bracket and change the wheel. Meanwhile an extremely helpful stranger happened by and worked with our driver. He got a nice tip and we got a big African smile in return! Then it was into the nearest village to reflate the spare tyre and found that the removed tyre was not damaged at all, just needing to be reflated. This procedure cost us $2.

Again, the psychology was interesting. After re-parking the vehicle, the driver squatted down beside the deflated wheel and went into a trance for 3-4 minutes. Fred & Vince showed no signs of shock or anything other than practical “What do we do now?” discussion. I on the other hand suffered some minor shock and found myself wandering aimlessly away from the scene but this quickly turned to anger. This driver had nearly killed us by driving too fast in a dust-cloud. Coming on top of his many other transgressions I needed to scream at him and slap his face really hard. But I didn’t. I stayed cool on the outside while boiling on the inside. We all just wanted to get out of there and back to Conakry.

Diamonds Are Forever

Smuggling diamonds from Sierra Leone is big business as anyone who has seen the movie ‘Blood Diamonds’ will know. On reaching the border we went through the customs and immigration process on the Sierra Leone side, all very polite, almost civilised. We then were shown to a chap on a desk who, it turned out, was Health Control. I don’t recall seeing any sign and he said: “How are You?”. We said we’re fine thanks, how’s yourself. “No”, he said “How is your health”. We said we were in very good health, thank you. OK, he said, you can go, by which time Fred & Vince had got out their yellow-fever certificates in which he was not at all interested.

We were then shown to the Search Room. An older chap in uniform explained to us in a well-rehearsed speech that there is a problem with diamond-smuggling and he would have to search us. He was deferential beyond belief, extraordinarily polite. He checked the contents of our pockets and a light body patting-down then said that he would give us the benefit of the doubt and not search our luggage because he trusted us. He spoke almost the same words to each of us in turn, the two not being searched waiting within ear-shot. Then we were on our way. The whole S.L. side had cost a half-hour at most and was almost an enjoyable experience. The guy who stamped our passports had us sit down and seemed to genuinely hope that we had enjoyed our short visit to S.L.

Back on the Guinea side it was like chalk & cheese. Almost everyone was nasty to us and demanded small bribes, anything from 10,000 to 30,000 GNF ($2-6).

Transeess

We drove back to Conakry without further incident, until reaching Transeess, a customs check-point on the very outskirts of the city. There we saw some 30-40 uniformed police and soldiers running around like crazy checking the papers of every vehicle, causing massive chaos.

Unfortunately one of them spotted Vince’s tiny digital camera and pulled us over. We were instantly surrounded by a half-dozen extremely angry uniforms, their eyes blazing, like they were high on something. They demanded the camera and Vince said simply: “No – I haven’t done anything wrong”. The policeman was absolutely astonished and beside himself with rage: “No? No?” he screamed, as if no-one had ever said No to him before. He eventually managed to wrestle the camera off Vince, but not before Vince had cleverly and covertly removed the chip. Then started, as always, the real purpose: how much money could they take from us. This turned out to be $40 and again we wondered if we had got off lightly, we’d have paid more to get away from these highly volatile, out-of-control freaks. Fortunately we didn’t spot any guns. I have no idea what turns them into this crazed, hyper state.

This time the driver himself was scared, telling me to urgently phone the car owner to ask him to come to Transeess to help us. He said that we would be taken to the main police-station in Conakry and he would come there. I called him back a few minutes later to say that we had bought our way out of trouble. He said: “Yes, that’s what I expected to hear”!

This car-owner, is called Prince, a Guinean businessman who wears a trilby hat. Helluva nice guy, fluent English. We then saw him at the hotel and he repaid the $150 expenses for the battery etc. Unfortunately he was in the midst of burying his mother. After paying us he quickly excused himself saying that the corpse was outside waiting for him to drive it to their home village, up-country.

Lessons Learned

We came away from this whole trip unharmed, some dollars out of pocket and perhaps realising how lucky we had been to avoid this sort of experience on our many previous cross-country trips. Or maybe this was a one-off. Or maybe it is just Guinea that is worst for treating white-faces in this way. If we can get to S.L. we will not face these angry, corrupt uniforms. Corruption in S.L. apparently happens at a much more subtle level. Also we were told that Sierra Leonians actually ‘fear’ the British, hopefully meaning ‘respect’!.

We also confirmed that it is actually helpful to not speak French in these situations, a lesson learned from Ian Sayer in Togo many years earlier. And of course, we learned that significant contingency cash is a good idea. I was cleaned out but Fred and Vince had spare dollars.

It must also be said that it takes a resilient, experienced personality to handle these situations without panicking or screaming in frustration or in fear, just remaining practical and calm under extreme pressure. I am not too bad at this but I have to say that you could not ever find any better travelling companions than Fred & Vince from this point of view: they stayed cool throughout, simply knowing from instinct how to react. Real stars.

This file-note is written not in order to secure sympathy from our colleagues but to inform and to entertain!