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.
So next day we had a morning to ourselves and I showed Edsel some of the sights of my local area. We got back for a light lunch (hurriedly bought from a local shop since I had emptied the fridge the previous day – I was intending to be away for 6 weeks!). I rang the number once more but could not get through to the automated message. So we decided to take a chance and head over to Brize Norton once more.
It was a Saturday so the roads were less busy and we reached in half the time of the previous night. It is one of those truths of life travelling around the south east of England. You can know how far you have to travel but whether you get there in an hour, two or three is up to the sheer weight of traffic or the multiple incidents which can grid lock whole stretches of motorway in seconds. And living in Kent I almost always have to travel round London clockwise or anticlockwise on the M25; the number of alternative routes can be limited. But second time around we were fortunate with this piece of travel. We still had to go through the rigmarole of getting security passes at the main gate. Different officers were manning the desk and they had no news of the flight. When we got to the main terminal though we discovered the news was bad. The fault had still not been fixed and there would be no flight tonight. They had been assured by the charter company that the plane would arrive early on Sunday morning. We were told we could either head home again but be back by 5am, or spend the night in the military hotel within Brize Norton’s perimeter. We decided to take this option but that meant a lot of paperwork. And we were not alone – there were many more people in the terminal this time. We were checked in with our baggage leaving us; we took out just what we needed for a one night stay, and we were handed a booking slip for the hotel, and vouchers entitling us to one dinner and one breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant.
Now, I had heard stories about this hotel – the Gateway House. It was reputed to be not much more than a glorified barracks block. When we got there I found out the truth… It was not much more than a glorified barracks block.
Built in the 1960’s it was Spartan to say the least. Our room was up echoey stairs on the second floor. The room itself was long and thin – with just about enough room to walk between two single beds. One single glazed window looked out over some landscaping to the airfield beyond – which meant we heard every plane that was landing and taking off even when the window was shut firm. And apart from small bedroom cabinets, a built in wardrobe and a couple of bedside lights there was no other furniture. Just a large speaker attached to the wall – dating from the same time as the building itself. The last time I had seen a speaker like this was when I would do “Movement and Music” at school in the 1970’s.
We decided it would be too depressing to sit here till the flight, so we headed down to the public rooms. People were everywhere. Our flight was not the only one to be delayed. At the time the post Iraq conflict meant that the British were moving people in and out of Basra every day. A couple of hundred well built young guys in their desert camouflaged uniforms were sitting around everywhere with their helmets and piles of kit bags. Some played cards, some were glued to their phones; others reading or staring off in to space or just closing their eyes and trying to shut off this world and mentally prepare for the tough assignment to come. I thought how where I was due to head would be completely different and the juxtaposition of people going to what was still in effect a war zone and those travelling to one of the most peaceful places on earth jarred me. As well as the soldiers going out to Iraq were many in civilian clothes – contractors and consultants no doubt. I even saw some very well dressed Iraqi men in suits wearing large watches and smelling of expensive after shave.
Every seat was taken in the main lobby area, so we settled in the TV room next door. This was still crowded but there were some spaces at the fringes. We had little to do but wait and I found myself watching a new phenomenon; the X-Factor auditions on the big TV. I’d studiously avoided this kind of programme for years but here I was commenting on the lousy singing, outrageous outfits, pushy parents and bitchy comments from the judges along with the rest. We watched about three hours of TV nonstop. After that, I decided I needed some fresh air so went into the trees behind the hotel and rang Vicky and a couple of others to give them an update. It was a hazy midsummer’s evening but I felt trapped behind the airfield’s fence in this curious no-man’s land. No home comforts but no exciting adventure either.
We had observed that more and more people were arriving at the Gateway, but as I walked back from my phone calls I heard a tannoy message that said the Basra flight would leave in three hours time and people were asked to make their way to the front of the hotel to board buses to the terminal. Most of the soldiers collected their kitbags and emptied the lobby of so much clutter. The Iraqi suits I had seen calmly put on flak jackets and helmets over their expensive clothes and headed out. I pondered that they may have been Iraqi politicians who had been at a meeting in the UK and were now heading home with some new policy.