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Celebrating the New Year in Sierra Leone

Our first day in Sierra Leone was a very, very long one. It began with us leaving Conakry in Guinea at 5am in a luxurious minibus with Barry our local Guinean driver, who, we found out later on, had never done this route before!

The reason behind the exceptionally early start was not just the long day and border crossings but due to the fact that it was the regular rubbish collection day…no, not just a truck and bin men type scenario but a huge task requiring the roads to be closed from 6am til 1pm so that everyone can sweep up any rubbish into huge mounds and then that either gets collected or burnt causing huge, toxic plumes of smoke to choke everything! Either way we didn’t want to hang around to watch….

So we jumped into the luxurious minibus we had paid a local gangster for and Barry our driver took us out of Guinea, towards the border with Sierra Leone.

Conakry was still so full of life this early in the morning, it seemed that no one slept at night…everyone was up sitting around small fires outside their wooden, corrugated roofed shacks warming themselves against the chilling morning air.

Whether this was a normal morning scene or due to the 6am rubbish exercise, who knows!

The outskirts were slightly more sleepy with little, pastel coloured crumbling buildings along the roadside with solitary lightbulbs outside.

Eventually we escaped the clutches of the city all together and found ourselves back amongst mud roundhouses and terrible partially tarmac roads!

Unfortunately, this route is the main one to the border so we had to endure a few hours of terrible road…we passed many local bushtaxi minibuses (vans with various geometrical shapes cut out of them for windows!) who had broken down either through being excessively laden with people and goods or the bald, poor quality tyres had finally given up and ruptured!

Finally we arrived at the Guinea side of the border and then the fun began….this is when we started to realise that Barry had no clue what he was doing! We pulled up to a police checkpoint in the town before the border and whilst Barry dashed off to sort out photographs and paperwork so he could cross the border, we sat in the minibus with a moneychanger who was only to happy to change up our leftover Guinea Francs and American Dollars into Sierra Leone Leones.

Eventually Barry reappeared with the relevant documentation and we headed off again only to come across another police checkpoint where we were told to pull over and stay there until Barry payed them a bribe. He, clearly, hadn’t planned for this eventuality and asked us for money which a) we weren’t going to pay and b) we didn’t have, having just changed up all our francs!

So Grant rang the gangster dude who we had rented the minibus and Barry from, who then spoke to Barry and clearly told him to sort the situation whilst being assertive and paying minimal bribes as it was coming out of the huge chunk of money we had already paid.

I don’t think Barry had assertive bone in his body…so we sat for a while outside the police station…Barry clearly attempting some form of less than mediocre negotiation with them.

This is where it all got a bit surreal….the moneychanger was still hanging around and was saying one of the policeman was his brother and if Barry paid him he would speak to his brother and get us through, the police were telling him something else, we were getting riled in the minibus and shouting at Barry to get a move on.

I had to get out and pee behind the police office as the whole thing took so long. Then a young lad appeared on a motorbike and was clearly trying to educate Barry about what was suppose to happen. Barry then gave all his paperwork and a lump of money to this motorbike dude who drove off in the direction of Sierra Leone….the presumption being we were supposed to follow him! At that point a man appeared out of nowhere wandering around the police checkpoint on 7ft stilts! I kid you not…I mean what the actual fuck!

No one expects to see that at a remote African border! But hey, this is Africa…anything goes and all sorts of shit happens!

So we head off towards the border in pursuit of the motorbike dude who has fled with the paperwork and cash! We arrive at another checkpoint at the border where the guy asks for the paperwork and bribe…to which poor Barry then has to explain that he has given it to a random stranger on a motorbike who said he was going to help him! Clearly this didn’t wash with the border guards who, although we couldn’t hear the terse exchange of words, we could see the hand gesture demonstrating that Barry was off his head and clearly retarded to hand over everything to this guy! So there we sat again….refused passage through the checkpoint with no paperwork!

In the end Barry had to run off inside the border post to try and locate the motorbike dude whilst we sat more and more frustrated glaring at the corrupt border guards who refused everyone entry until they paid a bribe! So blatant!

Eventually Barry reappeared with the motorbike dude and all the paperwork who then had a heated exchange with the border guard before we were finally let through to the border post which bizarrely happened to coincide with the arrival of stilt man! Who appeared to have strolled through the border on his stilts and was just wandering up and down! The mind boggles!!!

So we all piled out of the minibus and got stamped out of Guinea before having to walk down a corridor to the Sierra Leone side where we had a Yellow Fever certificate check and a quick temperature scan.

Eventually the nice man stamped us all in and we traipsed out, grabbed Barry and went on our way to Freetown!

We had a short 2 hour drive to the capital which ended up being longer due to terrible traffic in Freetown.

Eventually we rocked up at our hotel on the hill and after checking in we all headed to the restaurant for late lunch/early dinner and a sign of relief! We had successfully navigated our first border crossing in West Africa without the truck!

The view from the restaurant was stunning and definitely made up for the long day!

We were hoping for an early night and a good nights sleep, however, we soon discovered that our hotel was the only place to be in Freetown at night and that night was a wedding party! Queue terrible and exceptionally loud music and a terrible MC until 4am!

The next day was a Sunday so we had a lovely lie in, which a few of the group needed as they were suffering with a terrible bronchial chest infection and hacking cough. We basically spent the day chilling out around the pool before we were made to vacate the pool area for that night’s entertainment.

Sunday nights in Freetown is all about ‘Vocal Drift Inspire’ which is a tv programme recorded live at the hotel every week and is supposed to be Sierra Leone’s answer to ‘The Voice’! Let me tell you now…it’s not!

We had to vacate the pool area so the stage, sound system, judging tables and audience areas could be set up, so we took up residence in the restaurant with prime view of the stage!

To start with we had high hopes for the evening, Nicola especially who is an avid fan of The Voice back home!

So queue the first contestant….my god the singing was atrocious…there were something like 22 people singing and I think 6 or 8 were to be eliminated as this was now knock out! To be honest out of the 22 I reckon you could have knocked out 20!

The song choices were terrible and the outfits downright bizarre! The guys all donned animal shaped beany hats, the woman looked as though they had just come from entertaining men for money! One guy sung the song from Frozen and another the song from the sound of music! The theme was supposedly musicals but that was clearly loosely implied!

The judges appeared to favour the singers were thought atrocious and the ones we liked they slated! And in a hilarious ode to African corruption their families and friends could also buy votes which were worth twice as much as phoning in….so basically the winner will end up being the person with the richest following as opposed to the best voice! How African can a competition get!!!

Despite the poor singing the entertainment value was first class and produced class moments such as the female host saying things like ‘this contestant is now going to sing Under The Sea, from the Lion King!’ (Now I am no Disney fan but even I know that’s not Lion King but The Little Mermaid) and then towards the end of the night she referred to the whole evenings events as ‘this thing’! Haha

As you can see Grant and Nicola we’re loving it!

Monday was New Years Eve, we decided to mark this occasion by taking a trip to the Tacuguma Chimpanzee Reserve in Freetown. This reserve houses nearly 100 chimps who are in varying stages of treatment. They are all brought to the sanctuary because of poaching, injury, being orphaned, being a pet, abused or rejoined from elsewhere.

They create new chimp families whereby chimps at a similar level of behaviour and recovery are put together, they then go through a stringent process which ultimately allows them to be reintroduced into the wild.

We saw some young chimps and some who are at the early stages of the process, some who are almost complete and are semi wild…they roam about a large fenced reserve connected to the sanctuary and just reappear for food but they are encouraged to find their own within the sanctuary!

We also read a story about a small group that escaped years ago and have taken their lives into their own hands and decided they were ready for the wild!

After the chimps we headed into town for a mooch around and lunch in a lovely, local cafe.

We then hailed tuktuks to a large supermarket near the hotel, where we happened to bump into the rest of the group who were also stocking up on goodies.

We stood chatting with them for a while before they all piled into a minibus for the hour drive back to the beach the were camping on and we headed back to the hotel.

The rest of the day was spent chilling around the pool before we freshened up ready for the NYE celebrations!

Again, for the 3rd night in a row the hotel had entertainment scheduled..there were tickets on sale for $120 which would buy you a seat at a table, access to the buffet and a concert by a Lebanese artist called Wassim El Farissi.

One thing I had not yet mentioned is the prevalence of Lebanese people in Sierra Leone, I believe our hotel was owned by 3 Lebanese brothers who wouldn’t have looked out of place playing gangsters in a Bond movie!

Hence the Lebanese entertainment that night!

Anyway…I asked the reception about what was on…they said we could buy tickets at a slightly reduced price of $80 each! I asked if we could just sit in the restaurant, order food and watch the entertainment from there, to which they said ‘yes of course’! Right then…why the hell would we pay when we can watch for free?!

So Wassim bashed out some warbling sounding middle eastern tunes, we ordered dinner and watched from the free box! There was a power cut which gave Wassim sound issues, so he had to come off stage and was replaced by a DJ spinning dance tracks…Wassim eventually made it back on stage for a 7 minute long tune which took us to midnight!

We enjoyed some great fireworks before heading to bed and leaving Wassim warbling until 4am!

New Years Day we spent around the pool in the sun, doing nothing! Lovely! At least our New Year was an improvement on our dire Christmas!

Wednesday we checked out of the hilltop hotel and took a land cruiser out for the day to check out the famous beaches of Sierra Leone.

Our first beach was a small one called Lakka Beach which was really lovely and a great start to our beach day! We stood taking in the peace and tranquility for a moment before being approached by Paul, who wanted us to sample his locally sourced seafood!

After Lakka we headed down the terrible coastal road to the next beach which is called River No. 2. This beach is particularly famous for being the star of the 80s Bounty TV advert.

It is an absolutely stunning beach, I cannot begin to put into words how amazing it is. We spent a while wandering along it, taking in the beauty and tranquility.

We then bumped along the bright red road to the last beach, Tokeh.

Tokeh is also eye wateringly beautiful, soft white sand, azure water and lush green palms! The stuff of dreams!

After our beach sightseeing we dropped Grant & Martin off at camp so they could catch up with the group on the impending sacking of the crew (a long story!) whilst us ladies headed to a local place called Mama’s for lunch.

I had fish whilst Nicola and Nicole has some kind of creature from the deep!

That evening we stayed in a small, Italian run guesthouse down along the beach. Team Upgrade were all there to discuss the now official sacking of the crew and the forthcoming plan of action.

The Director of the company was going to take over but needed to obtain paperwork and visas first. This was going to add a delay of 5 or so days to the schedule which meant the guys on the truck were going to be stuck on the dodgy beach for that time with no crew and limited food! It’s all part of the adventure, clearly!

This brought about the parting of Team Upgrade, Lauretta and Giancarlo stayed at the guesthouse, Nicola, Grant and Martin went back to Tokeh Beach and stayed in huts there for a few nights, Richard and Rhona eventually headed back to the truck to be of support to everyone and Nicole and I headed back to the hotel on the hill for another couple of nights so we could plan our escape to Liberia.

Thankfully during our time in Freetown we had met a Canadian guy who lives in Freetown and is manager of a transportation company….ching ching!

So we paid him to organise us a land cruiser and driver to get us to Liberia.

Again, our departure was affected by rubbish! The Saturday that planned to leave was the rubbish burning day in Freetown…again all rubbish is piled up and then set alight which means all the roads are closed and the visibility is all but none due to the thick, billowing, toxic smoke.

So we couldn’t leave Freetown until after 12 lunchtime, which meant that we wouldn’t make it to the border in a day. So we drove as far as a small town called Bo and headed to the only decent hotel in town.

Sunday we got up early and headed off at 7am to the border. We had a long and slow 4 hour drive from Bo to the border post with Liberia, called Bo Waterside.

The roads were almost impassable which huge ruts carved out of the red mud and massive pot holes everywhere. Even in the landcruiser going was slow.

At one point we had to cross a small river on a powered wooden raft!

Eventually we reached the border and Nicole and I then proceeded to tackle our second border crossing alone!

Firstly we had to get out of Sierra Leone…this involved us being taken in a room with a border guard who only had one volume…shouting…we had to shut the door, which means bribe!

So we sat there whilst he perused our passports thinking of ways in which he could bribe us….he asked us where we had been staying to which we replied ‘Country Lodge Hotel in Freetown (the hotel on the hill!!), he then asked Nicole for the address…which she wouldn’t have known because I booked the hotel and when getting taxis and tuktuks to the hotel you merely state the name and everyone know where it is.

I interjected with the address, only for him to scream ‘I wasn’t asking you, I was asking her’! He then harped on about how she didn’t know the address so he doubted we had stayed there…what were we going to do about it…certainly not paid you a bribe, you jumped up wanker!

Nicole produced a receipt for the hotel which sadly hindered rather than helped because they had put my nationality down as Ireland! He then picked up on that and started screaming at me that my passport was UK and they had put Ireland! When I gave my response stating that in fact my passport was The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IRELAND and the system only printed out the last word type in the box, he went mental again screaming at me to not tell him how to do his job!

What a prick! So maintaining a semblance of calm and refraining from physically harming him, we sat there arguing with him for a while before he finally conceded defeat and stamped us out minus bribe! HA! African corruption 0 – Claire 1!

We jumped back in the car and then got dropped off at the Liberian border post, our driver left having to return to Freetown and we proceeded on foot with our rucksacks into the office!

2 guys showed us into a ‘health check’ room and demanded to see our yellow fever certificate. Having both produced them and there being no avenue for a bribe the guys then stated shouting at us saying we needed Cholera and it was a requirement. Now, let me tell you it’s not a requirement at all and we have both had it!

They spent the next 15 minutes demanding that we show them certification for cholera, when we said we have no certification but we have had it, they said we have to have the injection there and then and pay for it! We both refused saying we didn’t need it and it wasn’t a requirement.

This went on and on with them saying ‘well what are we going to do about this?’ To which my consistent response was ‘ I don’t know what you are going to do about it but we don’t need it and we have already had it so there is no issue’!

They threatened to send us back to Sierra Leone because we could have been contagious…with Cholera!!! So I said, fine we’ll go back and infect people in Sierra Leone! Sensible!

Nicole was trying to be diplomatic and using politeness and flattery, I was just full on fucked off and argumentative! Still…all of a sudden, upon realising they weren’t getting any bribe from us, my cholera certificate miraculously appeared in my paperwork where I know it isn’t! Fucking idiots!

Then they turned all nice as pie, laughing and wanting a chat! Even asked if I would employ them in the UK, to which my response was ‘no, you haven’t had all the injections to get in’! They thought this was hilarious and clearly misinterpreted my sarcasm!

Anyway…we got through bribe free and then had to tackle the actual border officer…he was quite friendly and eventually stamped us in with no attempt at a bribe shakedown!

We then jumped in his Nissan Micra and headed to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia!

Phew…what an adventure!!

I have to say, I really like Sierra Leone and its infamous beaches.

Let’s see what Liberia brings!

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