Into the Jungle – At the Border

We said our farewells to Hugo and set off down the road out of the village.  I’d been pondering what it was like to cross the border into Guinea.  Was it like so many places where the two huts were a few yards apart and there was a little no man’s land in between?  From the meeting room where we had lunched, I could see the road wind down through the houses to where it was obvious there was a stream hidden in the trees and I imagined that was where the post would be, but when we drove down and back up the other side, I realised the village was set back from the border.  It was in fact another kilometre or so before we reached the police post on the Sierra Leone side.  The rainclouds had all but cleared now and the sun was beating down on this point.  Haba and the other drivers took our passports and the vehicle paperwork into the small brick police station at the side of the road while the rest of us sat quietly in the cars.  The most senior official came out and walked to a small open wooden shelter covered with reed thatch adjacent to the road, and Haba beckoned us to join him.

This high tech border post needed only three pieces of kit; a tatty old ledger, a rubber stamp and an ink pad.  He took some time moving the date on the stamp to today’s date.  Carefully and laboriously the man wrote all our passport details into the ledger, rolled the stamp across the ink pad and firmly marked our passports with the exit visa.  Amongst the several American, the couple of British, the Ghanaian, Nigerian and several Sierra Leone passports, I was processed about half way through and walked back towards the vehicle.  The track headed across a small stream from here and I imagined the Guinean border post was just round the corner, obscured at present by some shrubs, and I also imagined the process would be as long and laborious round there.  Apart from this hut and an old abandoned brick shack on the other side of the track, there were no buildings in sight.  I was just surrounded by farm land interspersed with scrub.  It proved that borders could be very artificial artefacts of human life.  This was to be proved in spades over the rest of the afternoon.

The Highest Country in the World – Land borders

We turned off the main road in Butha Buthe as we needed to cross the border in to South Africa.  Still a well maintained road it dropped gradually towards the Mohokare River. I rarely come across manned border posts as coming from an island nation you cannot drive to another country.  Even in Europe with the Shengen Agreement there are few places where they occur.  Lesotho being landlocked is dependent on South Africa alone to allow land transport in and out of the country.  Only a few of the border crossings are open 24 hours a day.  I did use one of these, at the western end of Maseru when I went with some people Maseru on my second trip over to Ladybrand for dinner one night.  I suppose it is not surprising that people can go back and forth fairly easily – it is after all the same piece of countryside, just split into  two different states. The border crossings along the river in Lesotho are a little less arbitrary than some.  I remember passing through the extensive complex at the Sierra Leone/Guinea border crossing on the edge of a town, and then being told that the actual physical border crossing is about 10km north of there.  I could not quite understand why people would set up immigration and customs posts so far away, but I suppose there is always a question of whether you can purchase enough land to build all the car parks, offices and inspection huts needed for a busy crossing.  The funniest part of the Sierra Leone , Guinea border was that it was very clearly marked on the road.  The Sierra Leone side had been tarmacced under a recent EU funded infrastructure programme, the Guinea side was a potholed piece of metalling that had seen no maintenance for twenty years.  And the line in the road was obvious, not to mention the change in smoothness of carriage.


The border between Guinea (foreground) and Sierra Leone (background) marked by the new tarmac and road markings put in by the EU

The Caledonspoort border control near Butha Buthe was both very modern and heavily secured.  On both sides approaching the river the roadside was heavily protected with razor wire atop high chain fences.  Cameras and even look out posts were strategically placed.  Having said that the crossing guards on both sides were very friendly.  The Lesotho buildings slightly up from the flood plain  on a plateau, then the bridge over a dramatic gorge (but no photos of course) and then the South African control in a steep sided valley.  The road takes advantage of this valley to work through another escarpment of hills, and then we were away.