For as we all piled back into the vehicles and the cavalcade headed off down the track round the corner I had been observing, I realised there was no border post on the Guinean side. Indeed we then proceeded to drive for a further 40 minutes. We were not at a border, we were at a frontier. I’d had the feeling ever since we crossed the Scarcies River on the ferry that I was detached from the rest of Sierra Leone, but now I realised we were heading through a gently changing continuum from one country to another.
The landscape continued to open up and there were far more areas of just grass. Northern Sierra Leone does not have cattle, they tend goats and maybe a few sheep and pigs, but no cows. Here I saw my first herd as we drove through this no-man’s land. Indeed this was no empty space between the two countries; there were people on bikes, herdsmen with their cattle, women and children carrying wood on their heads, and even the odd collection of inhabited huts.
Deep in frontier land
The weather had closed in again as we crossed a large bas fond, heavily grazed down to the roots, and our way ahead was barred by a barbed wire fence. Near our track was a camouflaged watchtower. Aimed at our vehicles was a machine gun, although since it was rusting out in the rain I doubt it would have done us much damage. There was the usual style of chain check point, but it did not go down immediately. Haba chatted to the three guys in their fatigues, showed the vehicle laissiez passer and I fully expected we would be next to be inspected. But instead the chain went down and we passed through. This was merely the military border. In fact our driver explained that technically we were still in Sierra Leone. We had not left yet. The border was ahead of us running through the southern part of the town of Madina Oula to which we were now gently descending. We passed a series of fields, then huts, then more substantial houses and were finally coming into the market of Madina Oula when I spotted the actual barrier that marked the border between Sierra Leone and Guinea. Right outside the police station in the centre of town. And when I looked at my GIS maps of the area, although there was some confusion as to where the exact border was all round here, several of the lines converged on this point.
With the market still in full swing around us, Haba once more went through the process of getting his laissiez passers inspected and stamped, and all our passports were taken in a bundle into the dark recesses of the station. Stephanie accompanied Haba and came out with a tired smile on her face to tell us we could go ahead to the STEWARD guesthouse and they would pick up the passports later.
We had parked by a different style of construction. It was made up of open wooden frames in a square and a huge roof made of grass coming to an open point. It was used as a meeting room by the community and we squeezed in to the space. We waited a while for the chief and his elders to congregate then had a brief meeting looking at the issues in Sanya. We were not to go on a tour of the town, but we were to be given lunch here and from a nearby house huge plates and bowls of rice, chicken curry, fish stew, okra, came into this meeting room. We ate with the elders and then made our farewells as we still had to cross the border.
Sanya is the last village in Sierra Leone, and now I looked more carefully, had some of the trappings, albeit on a small scale, of a border settlement. There was steady traffic in both directions but not just the usual bikes and motorbikes, but more heavily laden taxis and trucks. One of our vehicles did not have the permit to cross into Guinea, and Hugo had to return to Freetown to catch a plane home. So there was a lot of reorganisation of the luggage. Haba’s STEWARD car roof rack was piled even higher and the tarpaulin carefully tied over the top as the rain appeared to be returning. While this was going on I was once more observing the village life around me. During the meeting and lunch, the sides of the meeting room were filled with dozens of pairs of eyes as the children of Sanya came to look at the visitors – I felt even more in a cage than in Sumata. When the feast was over, there was a lot of spare rice and sauce. The main cook stood on the step of her veranda and ladled out spoon after spoon to the children who mobbed around her. They were not especially under or malnourished, but the opportunity to get some extra calories and different tastes was not to be missed, and if you saw your friend getting some, why not you?
Sanya – our place for lunch
…but are still wanting to watch us
But for some of the kids they were torn; do they continue to watch these weird outsiders in their funny clothes taking pictures on little machines and talking in strange languages, or do you go for the ladle. Some tried to do both, looking at us in one direction while their hands were stretched out in the other, i.e. towards the rice dish.
It was a long drive to Sanya, and I noted that the road itself was of poorer quality once we left Sumata. The rain had also started to fall. With the steam on the inside and the drops on the window, there was not a lot to see, but at least we were lucky to be in the dry. We passed by people huddling under the trees, or just walking along in the rain by the road, trying to avoid our splashes as we went past. At one point the convoy came to a complete halt; up ahead was a medium sized bridge – it was two metal girders over two concrete posts crossing a ravine of some 7-8 metres deep. The general structure seemed sound enough but there were some concerns about the wooden planks over the top. The ones perpendicular to the road were in various states of decay; and overlain there were planks along the road to line up with our tyres, but one section of these were missing completely. We were not entirely certain that the planks were nailed together properly and with the weight of the vehicles plus luggage and passengers, we were wondering how much shifting of the planks would occur, potentially destabilising the whole structure and sending us toppling off into the ravine.
The gloom deepens as we approach the border
Clearly we were not the only ones that were concerned about the bridge. To the left of the road, down a steep rocky incline, was a second track, down to the dry river bed and back up an easier slope. One by one the 4x4s negotiated this slippy hill and we went on along the track on the far side.
The rain began to clear, but our rental drivers were again inexperienced in dealing with the now muddy road and Haba had jumped way ahead. We caught up with them at a point, where for both men and women was a useful relief stop, and I finally got a few moments to look around. The terrain was changing. In the east, a sheer cliff of sandstone rising over 1000ft to a plateau. Gray confirmed this was the Kuru Hills. Where we were now was a more open woody savannah, more grassy areas in between the tree stands than in Fintonia. We dropped down over the next few miles to Sanya village. Although the weather was gloomy, it only added to a feeling of decay in Sanya. Yes the same mould and moss was all over the houses as elsewhere an everywhere looked muddy, but more of the houses were in poor repair.
Still full from our brunch we packed up the car and headed back along the road to Lesotho. The journey felt less like an exploration into the unknown more a catch up with old friends. I did get that moment of trepidation as we approached the border post. Going through my mind, I started to panic that what if through some administrative error, I was not allowed through. My suitcase with my laptop and most of my possessions were sitting a couple of hundred kilometres south of here on the other side of the border, and I was due on a plane back to Jo’burg the next day.
My paranoia was of course unfounded, we got through with no problems. Christine asked us to take a detour. Being a peace volunteer meant she was immersed in the community and was not given access to the trappings of many a development project, such as big white vehicles. When she wants to get around more, she has to rely on slow buses on main routes. She had to pick up a parcel from a shop. I forget the details but I seem to remember it had been shipped across from South Africa. The pick up point was in the Maputsoe, which was off the main road as it was slap bang on the border. It was a fair sized town but it had a different air from most Lesotho urban areas. It felt more ephemeral, more transient. And of course it was; it had the air of a border town. Maputsoe lies back on the Mohokare River and another bridge crosses to the twin town of Ficksburg on the South African side. The main road that descends to the border post is lined with all the usual travellers stuff, but the road also seemed much more full of small wholesalers, grabbing stuff from across the bridge, bringing it across the border and then waiting for Lesothans to come and see if they can get it at bargain price. Everything was being sold here, household, industrial, transportation goods, food, drink. And of course there was the constant flow of people passing through, picking up buses or taxis, or being collected by family members near the border control. For many of the towns in northern and western Lesotho, this crossing into South Africa was far more convenient than Maseru. This one faced north and it was a fairly short hop and a jump back to the N1 and the road to Gauteng. From Maseru you also got to the N1 easily, but another hundred kilometres further south, and you had to travel down and through Maseru to get there. So this was a busy crossing, with migrant workers going back and forth, relatives visiting in both directions, as well as the commercial operators passing through.
Interesting services provided at the border
All sorts of other opportunists were there too , hawking and selling whatever they could. I saw a new trend here for the first time, some businesses in Africa allowed you to use phones, and internet cafes had appeared, but this was the first place I saw air time being sold from a shack. How times have changed – it seems now like there is not a shop in Africa that does not sell air time, or little stands on the street under colourful umbrellas with the branding of the phone company emblazoned across it. We had some trouble finding Christine’s pick up spot, but eventually we located the store. At first sight it appeared shut, but after some inquiries we found the owner in a back office going through his paper work. A mystery parcel was handed over, money was exchanged and we could proceed.
I say that these parts of Lesotho and South Africa are the same terrain, but it was incredible how different the landscape looked once we crossed over. In Lesotho every piece of flat land appears cultivated – lots of narrow field strips allow subsistence or low income farming to go ahead – mostly hand ploughed, hand sowed, hand weeded and hand harvested. The farmsteads all intermingled with the crops and the livestock roaming everywhere. And the soil was so dusty at this bum end of the dry season.
Spot the border – South Africa on the right, Lesotho on the left
In South Africa, there were hardly any villages, just miles of rolling grassland, some of it fenced in for cattle, some being prepared by machinery for the next season’s crops. There would be a ranch or a farmstead of immense proportions and loads of outbuildings for their kit and storage. Hidden away often amongst a grove of trees, you might get a glimpse of the African style houses of the farm labourers and their families, but they were not allowed to be cultivating their own crops or hold a lot of livestock. Maybe the odd chicken.
The sparsely populated, big fields of the South African side of the border
Here we were in Free State, the big wide open spaces, one of the breadbaskets of Africa, such a low population density compare to Lesotho. This was scenery on a gigantic scale. Each time we would pass through a gap between the mountains and a new valley would open up for miles around us it would take your breath away. We skirted a low lying area called the Brandwater Basin and every time we reached a ridge a new vista would open up. We travelled for another hour or so before we dropped down into the eastern extremity of the basin to find the small town of Clarens nestling in amongst all the hills.