When I had to cancel my previously scheduled two-week Christmas-time R&R (for reasons which will be revealed in the not so distant 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 join 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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
The next morning, I enjoyed the sounds of songbirds in the early morning light with a hint of a 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 of 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.
The border was a little confusing. Makeshift rope barriers guarded by a single guy are all that keeps 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 people 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 were no computers 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 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 to be a very nice place to stay.
There is another place to stay on Tokeh Beach ironically named The Place and it is really a nice-looking place, but it is popular and noisy. Tokeh Beach Sands on the other hand is quiet. 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.
After two glorious days of 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 nor the tedious border crossing nor 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 some topical Benadryl). The adventure was worth it.