February 14, 2023: Monrovia to Bo
After 2 days in Monrovia, Liberia, it was time to press on. At this point, I had nothing officially booked for the rest of the trip besides my flight out, but my ultimate goal was Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone.
I heard that the trip from Monrovia to Freetown could be done in one very long day, but most people do it in 2 days. The best stopping places are either Bo or Kenema in the eastern part of Sierra Leone. Since Bo was slightly closer to Freetown, I figured that would be my goal. There are no hotels bookable online in either Bo or Kenema, but I found hotels on Google Maps and figured it would just show up and hope for the best.
The first step was to get out of Monrovia. At 8:00 am I left my hotel and caught a $100 Liberian (<$1 US) to the city center.
I then walked across a busy bridge, past Providence Island to the north bank of Mesurado River. There, I found a rickshaw to take me to the Duala Market 6 kilometers north. The total journey took about an hour.
The Duala Market was a hectic place with vendors popped up on both sides of the wide road. I asked my driver where to find the long-distance cars. He laughed and said “don´t worry, they will find you.”
And sure enough they did. Before we could even park, the rickshaw was surrounded by young men fighting each other to ask me to get in their car. Eventually, I found a guy who would take me to the Sierra Leone border for $10 USD. He said he just needed to load the car.
In the meantime, I wandered the market a little. One guy pulled a pangolin, the world´s most trafficked animal, out of a trench coat! At one point an armless man approached me asking for water. While I was thirsty, he needed it more. He grasped the bottle with his stubs, almost crushing it and downed the drink it in seconds. If Mos Eisley was a real place, this would be it.
After 30 minutes, my car was seemingly no closer to leaving, and I started to get restless. Another man told me he could take me all the way to Bo for $20 USD. His car also looked marginally safer than the first car – it had mirrors. As I kept talking, my first driver´s henchmen came over and yelled at him.
Undeterred, I eventually realized that the new driver´s car was going to leave, and I could take the last seat. For an extra $10 (so $30 total) he would give me the front seat.
I accepted his offer and got in the car only to have the first driver and his henchmen confront my new driver. I then stepped in and told the first driver that he was not making any effort to leave so I defected. With nothing to say, he acquiesced and disappeared.
We paid, took off from the market, and then immediately stopped to get gas. I am not sure why the drivers don´t just get gas before, but my guess is that they need the passengers´ cash to pay for the fuel. Another thought is that the fuel could be stolen if for some reason they did not end up leaving today. I stepped out to buy some snacks and use the bathroom. It was then I realized that there were 4 people in the back seat! Wow I am glad I spent that extra $10.
By the time we left Monrovia for good, it was 10:50, nearly 3 hours after I left my hotel.
Outside the city, the road wound through beautiful jungle. The road was paved, but there were many potholes.
Along the way to the border, we passed 4 checkpoints. At each checkpoint, somebody manually held a rope across the road, making it impossible to drive through. We, the passengers, would get out, walk through a little gate where a police officer would ask to see identification. Then we would get back in the car. By the time, we got back into the car, the driver most likely already paid a bribe so we were good to go. To avoid giving the police any leverage for a bribe, I prefer to use a paper copy of my passport.
There were 4 checkpoints between Monrovia and the border.
The first checkpoint was supposed to be biggest one. I showed a copy of my passport to the guard. He asked if I was Peace Corps. I said yes and was immediately let through.
The second checkpoint occurred 15 minutes later (I really don´t get their purpose because what would the second checkpoint find that the first one missed?). Same deal, I was let through easily. In the car, the other passengers commented how I was treated differently – in their minds better – than the locals. Not to worry, that opinion would soon change.
As I walked through the third checkpoint, the big chief of the post walked right towards me and demanded to see not only my original passport but also my visa. “This is extremely important” he told me. After a good laugh, I reluctantly pulled out my actual passport and gave it to him. He flipped through the pages, found the visa page, and let me go. I think he was disappointed that he could not find a way to ask for a bribe. I have heard stories of African roadside policemen incorrectly telling people that visas are not valid unless issued in their home country and then asking for a bribe, but mine was issued in New York. The other passengers then commented how I was treated so poorly.
At the final checkpoint, the big chief invited us all into his office. We sat down around his desk. He then took my passport and spoke to me.
“Bryce Caster… from California.”
“How do you like Liberia?”
“Love it. Liberia is the most beautiful country.”
“Good. Now go.”
“Thank you. Do you mind if I use the bathroom?”
“Go out back”
I then walked to the back of the building where I discovered a man locked in single jail cell. He reached out to me, but there was nothing I could do. In the back, I peed, and we left.
The drive to the Bo Waterside border took just 10 more minutes – a total of 2 hours from Monrovia. I got stamped out very easily. However, one man was heading home to Guinea and did not have a passport – instead he carried a laissez passer. It took an hour, but he was eventually allowed to continue.
I also exchanged money here, as both Liberia and Sierra Leone have their own currencies. Sierra Leone´s currency is hilariously called the Leone. The driver ensured that I was not scammed by the moneychangers.
We then drove across the Mano River into Sierra Leone.
We approached the border post and disembarked. After passing through a hand-washing station, we waited in line to have our passports checked. The guard then asked me for my visa. After explaining that I do not have one and can purchase it on arrival, he told me to get on his motorbike. We then drove about 30 seconds over to the main offices of the border crossing.
The man took me to a back office where the big boss, a middle-aged man, sat with someone around my age.
The younger man asked me why I was going to Sierra Leone. I told him that I heard Sierra Leone has better beaches than Liberia. He smiled with approval and laughed. He then told me I had to pay 800 Leones to purchase the visa (50% cheaper than what I was expecting). As I laid down the many bills (the largest bill is 20 Leones), the younger man told me how impressed he was counting the money.
I then proceeded to another room where a man checked my COVID and yellow fever vaccines. Everybody here was so nice- I think in reaction to a very negative experience a 2019 crossing of this same border by travel Youtuber Drew Binsky who was scammed out of a few hundred dollars here. The authorities saw his video and arrested the border guards. So now, the border crossing was a very pleasant experience! So far, I am definitely enjoying Sierra Leone more than Liberia.
With that, I had officially reached Country 85 and cross my first West African land border.
From the border, we drove on a perfect Chinese/Senegalese built road. Truly night and day from Liberia. We averaged 100 km/hour and reached Bo in just 2 hours.
Our driver dropped the other passengers off at the bus terminal before taking me to the Sahara Hotel in the city center. While I did not have a reservation, they had plenty of rooms available. I got a fan room without AC for 130 leones or $6.50 US.
After walking out to explore the city, I saw a British man walking in. As we were the only two white people most likely in the entire city, we chatted. His name is Rob and he has been traveling overland from Benin for the past 2.5 months. It turns out, I have seen him in various traveler Facebook forums including Every Passport Stamp.
Bo is Sierra Leone´s second largest city. It was reportedly spared destruction during the 1991-2002 Civil War due to a strong local militia and as a result has numerous colonial-era buildings.
Our hotel was located next to the landmark clock tower.
Nearby was the lively market, which provided a couple hours of entertainment and exploring.
For dinner, we ate street food. My huge pot of stew was just 15 leones or .75 USD.
February 15, 2023: Bo to Freetown
The next morning, I ate the hotel´s breakfast, which was not good. Rob and I split a motorcycle taxi to the bus station. He planned to take a motorcycle taxi to a remote part of the coast, while I was going to take a share car to Freetown.
Just like in Monrovia, the share car drivers (and their henchmen) found me before we could even park the car. This time, the wait was only about 10 minutes. Right before we left, Rob decided to change his plans and got in the car with me. I soon regretted this, as we had 11 people in the small SUV: 3 in the front, 4 in the middle, and 4 in the back. I was in the middle of the middle row. On the bright side, the ride was just 90 leones ($4.50 US).
As we pulled away, our driver paid off the henchmen – unemployed men who hang around and “help” facilitate cars. The driver handed all the money to one man, so they physically fought with each other to grab the money.
The drive took 4 hours on perfect roads. No roadblocks. About halfway through, we stopped once to pee and stretch the legs. But that was it.
As we entered Freetown and its long mess of suburbs, people started getting out. At some point, the driver said it was the last stop and he let us out on the side of a very busy road. I had made it.