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.
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 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.