Maf Village and Sierra Leone

Shells galore on Tokeh Beach, Sierra Leone

When I had to cancel my previously scheduled two-week Christmas-time R&R (for reasons which will be revealed in the not so distance future), I wondered if I would have any getaway at all at the end of the year. I had a bunch of use or lose leave (we can only carry over a set amount of leave in a given year to the next and any that is over that is forfeited if not used or donated by the end of the year) and a hankering to spend it somewhere other than my apartment. I played with ideas of traveling to Senegal or Cote d’Ivoire for a week but frankly I did not think I was up for that level of planning and time away. As luck would have it, friends of ours in Conakry asked if we were up to joining them for a trip to Maf Village and on to Tokeh Beach in Sierra Leone for a few days. It was just what C and I needed. Some time with friends, a chance to see a bit more of Guinea and venture into a neighboring country, but without a big investment in time. Driving across borders in West Africa. Oh boy, an adventure!

Early on December 19 we met up to begin our caravan. Maf Village is located in Maferiyah, Guinea, just over 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Conakry. As all distances in Guinea are, this too is misleading. One might think that drive would take no more than an hour given some stop and go traffic in the capital. Unfortunately, one would be quite wrong. It took about three hours to drive that distance.

Light of sunrise at Maf Village

The problem is mostly Conakry, which as far as traffic and roads go is rather a mess. And that, my friend, is a major understatement. Yet truth be told, I hardly remember the first hour getting out of Conakry, probably as I was so excited about the prospect of this getaway, and perhaps, I am getting used to the madness? We took the N1 (National Road 1) from the heart of Conakry until it met the N4 just outside of Coyah, in the Kindia Region. Here there is major construction underway that one day will likely make this drive more pleasant, but for the time being only made the road more narrow, crowded, and chaotic.

The Maf Village bar where we watched the World Cup final

I lost sight of my friend’s car and the GPS told me to make a left that I should not have, right there smack in the middle of the chaos zone where motorcycles, taxis, passenger cars, semis, construction vehicles, and pedestrians vied for right of way in an unmarked dirt zone that served as the temporary alternative roadway. Luckily my friends called me to tell me of my error right away, but it would prove difficult to turn around in that area. Except I summoned my inner Guinean Driver and turned around where I wanted and got back on track pretty quickly.

Once we turned on to the N4 it was as if we had been transported to another country. The road is paved; there are painted lanes and shoulders, and a glaring lack of potholes. What wizardry was this? The last bit of our drive to Maf Village went by quickly.

Maf Village is a lodging and activity location. This is where schools have field trips. There is the swimming pool and guided hikes but also horseback riding, a game room, an obstacle course, Guinea’s only bowling alley, exotic animals such as a monkey, ostriches, peacocks, and some baby crocodiles, and a large garden where they grow a significant amount of their own food.

In many places Maf Village might not be all that, but in Guinea it is the bee’s knees. It offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

We only had the one night at Maf Village. We enjoyed some lunch and then the kids swam in the pool and I had a pedicure at the newly opened (and nicely air-conditioned) spa. Then we all gathered in the bar area to watch the World Cup finals. We were rooting for Argentina and it sure was an exciting match. It was really great to be with friends and a few others yelling at a tv and cheering.

Following the game we took a walking tour of the property to see where they raise animals and grow crops and for some reason have a pair of ostriches. We then had dinner and the kids played ping pong afterwards.

Approaching the Guinean-Sierra Leone border and, are you kidding me, Sierra Leone has toll plazas?

The next morning I enjoyed the sounds of song birds in the early morning light with a hint of plateau in the distance through the Harmattan haze. It had been a long time since I had heard birds like that, since perhaps my wonderful yard in Malawi. We have an amazing view from our apartment in Conakry, but we have no yard, I rarely hear birdsong. I hear the train, the call to prayer, cars and trucks honking on the road, heavy machinery from the nearby construction site, and dance parties from below, but not birds and insects. I closed my eyes and listened. I had a good ten minutes before the spluttering of a motorcycle sliced through.

We had breakfast, packed up, and started our drive to the border with Sierra Leone. I have to tell you I was pretty excited, giddy even. I tried to think the last time I had driven across an international border. Sure, I had this past summer from Belgium to Luxembourg and back, but driving across EU borders is not the same. Then there was when I served in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and crossed back and forth the border to and from the U.S. But not the same as self driving across a border in West Africa.

Tokeh Beach looking toward Freetown

The border was a little confusing. Makeshift rope barriers guarded by a single guy are all that keep one from just driving across without going through immigration (well, and the threat of being caught). Signage in the building could leave most wanting, but as there were no lines to speak of and we stood out, we were quickly met by persons wishing to help us. But we needed to ascertain if those people were official or not. A man who looked a bit dodgy, but did have a badge on around his neck that he flashed at us, led us through the door marked “Do not enter. Officials only” and into an office where we all sat down in front of a desk. There sat a man with a computer, passport scanner, and camera. Seemed official enough as he scanned our passports one by one, asked us a few questions, typed up some information, then stamped us out of Guinea. I could not recall having ever sat down at immigration before.

We went back out to our cars. The guy lowered the rope to let us drive through to the other side where we parked and did the same thing on the Sierra Leone side. Once again we were approached by a person who did not appear to be official but turned out to be. She also led us past the windows and into her office. Here though there was no computer or scanners, just two large ledger books. One was labeled in large capital letters in black permanent marker “Non-Citizens Incoming” and the other “Non-Citizens Outgoing.” I was surprised by the technology available on the Guinean side that the Sierra Leones did not have. After getting our Sierra Leone entry stamp we then had to have our “lassez passer” documentation for our vehicles checked. Then we were free and clear to continue on to Tokeh Beach.

The road from the border nearly all the way to Tokeh Beach, about an hour outside of Freetown, was amazing. Paved, lane makings, shoulders, and mostly pot-hole free. We drove through two toll plazas where we paid 4 Leones (less than a quarter) to continue.

Finding Tokeh Beach Resort took a little extra effort as we got close the map lost its accuracy. But a wrong turn and some discussion with a local had us following said person as he lead us on a motorcycle taxi. Our initial reaction to Tokeh Beach Resort was not great. After the long drive and the fancy website, we had been expecting more, but it turned out a very nice place to stay.

Sunset and sunrise at Tokeh Beach

There is another place to stay on Tokeh Beach ironically named The Place and it is are really nice looking place, but it is popular and noisy. Tokeh Beach Sands on the other hand is quite. I am a fan of quiet. We enjoyed the food, had great company, and just soaked in the sound of the waves on the powdery white sand beach. The sand is so fine that it squeaks as you walk across it. The pool turned out to be in the sister Tokeh Beach Palms about a 10 minute walk down the beach. No worries, the kids played in the surf for hours on end. I read. I wrote in my journal. I walked on the beach. I watched the kids and the waves. I thought about driving the hour to the chimpanzee sanctuary but then thought better of it. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was already where I wanted to be.

The electricity is only on at the resort from 6:30 PM to 7:30 AM. You do not really need it otherwise. Sure, the bathroom was poorly lit/had no window so using the restroom or taking a shower during the day may involve some fumbling about in the dark or finding a large katydid on the faucet as you turn it on (as my daughter C found out. Great lungs for shrieking that one. C, not the katydid), but otherwise we were fine. The power overnight let us run the A/C so we could sleep and charge our devices.

This might not be a great commentary on the 2021 dream…or is it? A dream destroyed or a dream battered but hanging on? Hmmmmm… I just loved the composition.

After two glorious days doing nearly nothing by the water, it was time for us to pack up and make the drive back to Conakry. Though this time we would do the reverse, thus going from good roads, to great roads, and then crappy roads the closer we got to the Guinean capital, the 48 hours of white sand and ocean waves must have done the trick because despite the seven hours it took us to get home, I still felt content when we got there. Neither the long drive or the tedious border crossing or the stop and go crowded mania of the Coyah-to-Conakry interchange construction brought me down. Not even the special gift I got from Sierra Leone — a bizarre allergic reaction to a likely mosquito bite that left six inches of my left forearm swollen and super itchy — dampened my spirit. (Though once in Conakry I drove straight to the Embassy Health Unit to have that forearm thingy looked at and acquire me some topical Benadryl). The adventure was worth it.

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Mini Guinea Getaways: Soumba Falls

Close up of Soumba Falls at high volume

In my efforts to finally get out and about in Guinea, I was pleased to learn that our Community Liaison Office (the “CLO” – a catch all office that provides welcome information for newcomers, puts together holiday events, and organizes tours and gatherings) was organizing an Embassy outing to Soumba Falls in November. I knew there were not a lot of tourist sites in Guinea long before arriving (and many that do exist require a lot more creativity and resourcefulness to get to), but Soumba was in all the Embassy information – Post video and welcome letter – so the CLO trip was both fortuitous and expected.

As the rainy season had just ended the falls would be flowing well. I had heard that months after the rains, the falls would be little more than a trickle. This was the time to go.

A gorgeous sunrise as we leave our residence spells a good start to the day

We were to meet at the U.S. Embassy at 7 AM to travel to board the buses that would take us to the Les Cascades de Soumba. Originally, I thought we would all drive in a caravan, and though I do generally enjoy driving, I was a little apprehensive about making this one so I was quite happy to hear about the buses.

The falls are located just under 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the U.S. Embassy in Conakry though drive times vary considerably depending on traffic. It should be an hour drive at most, but online the quotes on TripAdvisor range from an hour and 30 minutes to “less than two hours.” The CLO had estimated a two hour drive with us all arriving around 9 AM. Unfortunately, it took THREE HOURS that Saturday morning! Sigh. Oh, Guinea.

A cemetery along the way with an amusing sign. Though it turns out that most cemeteries in Guinea have this saying “Nous Etions Comme Vous, Vous Serez Comme Nous!” (“We once were like you, you will be like us!”)

At first it did not seem so long as people chatted away with one another or snoozed. And we could also look out at the sights along the road. Most of the time it was just to see the muddy roads, the crush of cars and trucks vying for dominance on the streets, and unattractive, poorly built buildings fronting the road. The cement of the structures coated in Guinean dust, and the clothing of much of the people on the street having been washed repeatedly in less than clean water, well, everything just takes on the same monochromatic reddish dirt color. Still, on occasion there are surprises such as the cemetery sign above and the Donald Trump School (Le Groupe Scolaire de Donald Trump), of which I am quite sorry I did not get a photo.

At long last the buses limped into the parking area of Soumba Falls and we all gladly stumbled out of the buses.

We had a choice of two possible hikes in the area. One, that the CLO had organized last year, was just an out and back along the same road we had driven in on, with some side excursions alongside the river. Frankly, it did not seem all that appealing to walk along the dirt track we had just journeyed along on wheels even with the promise of a view or two of flowing water, so everyone hiking opted to take the other, unknown, route.

C hiking through the tall grass at Soumba Falls

I would love to write that the hike was a-ma-zing, but it wasn’t. It was okay. The colors of the tall grass almost wheat-like against the taller green shrubs and the deep green of distant hills and a bright blue sky. Ok, so there were some highlights. But it was really warm, the grass high and scratchy, the trail almost imperceptible that it deserved to be in air quotes (“trail”), and there were several areas where plants with large thorns had to be held back for us to pass, but we still ended up with cuts on our legs and arms and small burrs on our shoes.

The “trail” did not really lead anywhere, just out to an overgrown area near a stagnant part of the upper river where crocodiles were languidly lying in wait beneath the surface. Or so we were told as barely any of us could get a good look at the water through the deep foliage. The two guides led us back the same way, which given the lack of sights the first time through did not give us all something to look forward to. Or rather the guides tried to lead us back the way we came, but they got a little lost at first, taking us first a shortcut that turned out to end in a barbed fence we could not cross so we had to backtrack. Therefore I have to air quote our “guides” and the “shortcut” as well.

The “guides” had told us the trek would take an hour. I should have air quoted the “hour” as well, though I didn’t believe them from the get go. At least ninety minutes after we set out (though I think it was longer) we arrived back at the falls sweaty and grateful for a chance to cool off in the water.

The CLO had pre-ordered everyone’s lunch from the restaurant (well, I mean “restaurant” – it was more a giant smoke grill) that overlooks the falls. Unfortunately, at noon the food (either beef, chicken, or fish – we did not get more detail than that) was nowhere close to being done. I cannot say for sure the cooks had even begun. I suspect not.

As everyone had been in Guinea for at least a month knew that it was unlikely we would be seeing our food orders in the near term, we opted to swim before lunch. Good call.

My daughter, her friends, and their mom ran to get changed into their suits and slipped into the shallow pool at the end closest the “restaurant.” Just above there was a natural water slide created by the gushing falls and some smooth rocks. We counseled our kids to swim quickly to the side after the slide as the strong current and a bit of an undertow had the potential to sweep them quickly into a roped off area. Apparently there used to be signs warning of some potential death should one pass the rope line, whether by water or crocodiles or other was not all clear. However, though I went in search of the sign for photographic purposes, it had fallen and been shoved deep into the crook of a tree from which I could not yank it out. So much for a warning. Or a fun photo.

But we knew to stay away from the rope line. We also knew there were other possible risks — our health professionals had warned us all to avoid swimming in the falls due to the possibility of contracting Bilharzia, otherwise known as Schistosomiasis, from parasitic worms that live in snails that hang out in contaminated freshwater around Africa. Generally, these beasties are found in stagnant water though our medical practitioners warned that there is potential even in fast flowing waters. We crossed our fingers and toes and put positive vibes out into the universe and then took our chances. Hopefully we were lucky.

Wide view of Soumba Falls in its gushing glory

Around two in the afternoon the “restaurant” began handing out some of the pre-ordered meals. Perhaps they had not anticipated such a large group in addition to some other visitors? How that might be the case since we had called ahead and it was a gorgeous and hot weekend at the beginning of the dry season, I fail to understand, but it was what it was and one has to learn to temper expectations in Guinea. By the time everyone had eaten we were well past our expected departure time, but what was there to be done for it? Luckily, I guess, the return drive took only two and a half hours. Ha! Still over what it should have been but it felt short given what it could have been.

All in all I am glad we went when we did. The waters were high and fast and the falls resplendent in their gushing glory. The waters were cool and refreshing. The grilled chicken and chips not bad. We were experiencing it as a group, with friends, and as much as I like to do independent travel, I did not want to be negotiating that drive or the meal on my own. I was grateful to have someone else handling those details.

Mini Guinea Getaways: Boffa

Bel Air Beach, Guinea

After spending our first four months in Guinea during the very wet rainy season, it was high time to get out of Conakry when November and the dry season rolled around.

My first opportunity to travel beyond the capital’s borders was in early November when a program officer came out from Washington to visit some sites where his bureau had funded programming. As the supervisor of his program assistant at the Embassy, I would get to visit all the sites and attend all the meetings as well.

As part of the trip, we would be visiting two national police academies. One in Dubreka, about an hour outside of Conakry (on a good traffic day, which I suspect are few and far between) and the other in Boffa, about 140 kilometers north of Conakry, which according to Google takes only three hours from Conakry except I have not found Google driving estimates here to be particularly accurate.

On the road to Boffa

Given that in reality it takes quite a bit longer to get to these locations, we would need to overnight near the academy in Boffa and stay at one of the few, if only, places in the area: the Hotel Bel Air, located another hour past Boffa, on the coast. I had read somewhere that this was a great hotel on Guinea’s best beach and had hoped to visit while in Guinea. As I was not so keen on a long drive, going there for work then would give me a chance to check it out.

After our visit to the academy in Dubreka, our driver headed to north to Boffa. Road conditions in Guinea are not great, but the further we drove from Conakry, the better the roads seemed to get. They were narrow, no shoulders, few lines, but far fewer potholes in the countryside. Similar to Malawi, the roads zipped through the middle of small villages with little to set them back from the traffic.

On a few occasions there was some dramatic and beautiful scenery, sometimes though you had to look beyond the immediate vicinity to see it. In the photo above with the craggy rock jutting out of a green hill, I was standing in a truck stop. It wasn’t much, just about a dozen long-haul semis parked in a muddy layby while their drivers took a break. My shoes were sinking in the muck and the drivers appeared amused at either my taking a photo of anything or that I was there at all. But with just the right angle and some cropping, you would not really know.

My new friend Carlsberg on Bel Air Beach

I do not remember too much of the drive to Bel Air as we had a lot of camaraderie in the car. I recall lots of green though. Sometimes the woody green of a dense trees alongside the road, sometimes the emerald green of grass and palms by a river, and sometimes the chartreuse of towering grass framing the road. And the one car bridge. I was pretty impressed with it. Malawi didn’t have any bridges that were quite so solid. After three hours or so of driving we arrived at what seemed like it might have once been the Hotel Bel Air, though now long past its glory.

We drove around a circular drive to the entrance. Not a single other vehicle was in the parking lot. The large lobby was deserted. Not a person in sight. No one came out from the reception desk even after we called “hello” multiple times. The lobby had large windows that let in the afternoon light, but it was clear the electricity was off as the corners of the high ceiling were dark. We walked down a large hallway that seemed eerily sterile and abandoned. We stepped out on to a back patio facing the Atlantic. Only stagnant water about a foot deep lay at the bottom of the pool. Behind us the building fa├žade was stripped to the concrete, with the second floor rooms missing not only their balconies but their whole back wall. So, yeah, things were not looking too promising.

But a man, who introduced himself as the manager, appeared from the standalone bar located a short walk from the patio. The Embassy program assistant said we had a booking but expressed reservations about the hotel and our being able to procure dinner. The manager assured us it would be no problem.

Not creepy at all….

He asked us to follow him to our rooms. We ascended a staircase and walked down a darkened hallway. The ceiling was removed to expose pipes, wooden crossbeams, wires and the nests of what I later determined were swifts. The Shining anyone? The manager told us that only two of the rooms had a hot shower mechanism but that all the air conditioning units would work once the power came on in a few hours. The hotel only runs electricity from 6 PM at night to 8 AM the next morning. We were glad to hear it. Though I was once a backpacker who stayed in many a simple, unairconditioned room in steamy tropical locales and managed, I have grown very soft.

After getting ourselves settled, we meet the manager back at the patio to pre-order our dinner. We have a choice of chicken, beef, or fish. It’s like being on an airplane as there is no indication of how these options will be prepared or with what. Because I am just a tad picky with my chicken, I ask if any of the chicken available is breast meat. The manager says no, they do not have that. This is not the first time this has happened here but I wonder, as a chicken streaks across the beach in front of me, where do all the chicken breasts go if no place has them on offer? No matter, with low expectations I picked the beef.

While placing our dinner orders in the bar area, a small pack of very hopeful pups came to stand near us. I do not know what came over me — maybe just trying to find some joy in this somewhat odd place? — but I named two of them Carlsberg and Jameson. When I decided to take a walk along the beach, C and J trotted after me, tongues lolling. I just did a bit of walking and a bit of sitting and meditating as the waves rolled in. Then I returned to the room to do a bit of reading. Although my room was supposedly one of the ones with hot water I could not figure it out for the life of me, so I enjoyed the first cool water bucket shower I have had in some time. It was actually refreshing and made me think of all the times I had done that before, mostly in Southeast Asia.

Around 7 PM, I met my two companions for dinner on the patio. Though warm, there was a lovely breeze and we could hear the waves and the rustling of wind through the palms. We had views of a starry sky and the dark empty swimming pool. Carlsberg and Jameson stood vigil nearby. My beef arrived and it was remarkably good. My companions enjoyed their fish and chicken. This weird, mostly abandoned place had turned out some nice meals and service. I called my daughter, who was staying over with friends. She was none too happy with me for having left her while I went on this adventure. She told me she wished she were there and to describe the hotel. I had to tell her, laughing, that she was not missing anything. She thought Carlsberg and Jameson were cute though and that all things considered she would rather have been able to come with me.

The beach at the Hotel Bel Air in late afternoon

Retiring to my room I was happy to see the electricity was on and the air conditioning working well. The mosquito net hung limply from the ceiling with no frame, so I just wrapped it around me. Though the air conditioning unit was somewhat noisy it was more a white noise and I could still hear the waves outside. I fell asleep.

I could not believe how well I slept. I am not a great sleeper, often prone to insomnia, and the tour in Guinea had thus far been more stressful than not. Imagine my surprise when one of my best nights of slumber would be at this hollowed out hotel.

I opened the balcony doors and stepped out. The droning of the overworked air conditioner that had left a puddle over most of the balcony, could not drown out the sounds of the sea and the dozens of swifts conducting aerial tricks over the beach. I love the view from my sky-high apartment in Conakry, but I missed the sounds of birds that I could hear every morning from my screened in porch in Malawi. Bel Air was the first time I had heard this many birds in Guinea. I did not rush down to breakfast. I wanted to drink in the dulcet sounds, store them, so I could recall them and feel calm later, when back in the chaos of Conakry.

The view from my balcony – of swifts, beach, and sea

We had a full day ahead of us. A visit to the national police academy in Boffa and then the long drive back to Conakry. The visit went very well and though long the drive was doable with such great companions. We laughed how no matter what in the future we would remember this trip together, we will always have the Hotel Bel Air. As much as C had wanted to join me, I knew this was not a trip I would have liked to do with her. I am grateful though I had this opportunity to see at least a small part of Guinea outside the capital.