“It would have been easier if I had been able to obtain a map. But the republic is almost entirely covered by forest and has never been properly mapped, mapped that is to say even to the rough extent of the French colonies, which lie on two sides of it”. (Graham Greene: Journey without maps)

Eighty years on from when Graham Greene travelled on foot through Liberia (in actual fact he was carried much of the time) it appears some things don’t change. I don’t think there is a road map for the country. But then there aren’t many roads. As for the forest, much of that appears to have gone the same way as Sierra Leone – slashed and burnt. What one sees, at least on the 120km journey from the Sierra Leonean border to the capital, Monrovia, is a continuation of secondary growth – unremarkable bush interspersed by toilet-brush palms.

The road is a good one however, and the people equally as shocked and friendly to greet a white man riding a bicycle past the door step of their mud-thatched abode.

One of the Liberian immigration officers informed me that a “colleague” of mine crossed through this way several months ago. We continent-crossing cyclists are of course employed by our governments (at least in the minds of many Africans) and receive huge compensation for our efforts. “He was from China.” “Are you sure he wasn’t Japanese?” I questioned. The immigration officer thought for a moment. “Yes maybe”. My colleague I guessed was Hiromu, whom I’d cycled with for a day some 7 months ago. He’d recently e-mailed to say he was in Niamey, Niger, and would be heading to Ivory Coast within the next few months. There is a good chance we’ll meet again. Company on the road would be much appreciated.

Before riding into country number 11 (12 if I count Western Sahara) on this journey I changed my remaining Leonean currency into Liberian dollars and dined on a plate of ochre soup, unidentifiable meat (goat maybe) and rice, washing it down with several cups of Sierra Leonean palm wine. I’d bought 2.5 litres in Sulima and brought it across the border with me, much to the satisfaction and amusement of several immigration officers.

 Palm wine, it must be said, is an acquired taste. The first time I tried it in Sierra Leone I almost vomited, but subsequent samples of the stuff were either better, or else I just became hardened to the taste. Tapped fresh from the tree this sweet milky-white beverage isn’t all that bad considering it sells for about $0.25 a litre.

Without a decent map it was difficult to ascertain the distance to Monrovia. In Sierra Leone I found that people were often very accurate in quoting me the distance from their village to the next. Someone might say 7 miles, then another would step forward and say no, it’s 8 miles. Others might then agree with the second speaker that yes, the distance was 8 miles. Much to my surprise they were often right. This goes against the norm in Africa, where time and distance have little measure.

Well in Liberia it appears no-one knows anything about distances, not even police check-post officers. They will look at their watch, say 3 miles and tell you it will take 40 minutes to drive there.

One interesting feature about Liberians is that they have their own particular brand of handshake, which involves flicking the middle-finger with the thumb as you release your grip. This Americanism, if that is what it is, complements the calls of “Hey man, what’s up”, that is often called as a greeting from the roadside. Liberia is after all a nation that can point its history to the Americas rather than Europe. During the mid 19th Century thousands of freed slaves from America settled back in what is now Monrovia.

Liberia these days shares a greater similarity with its northern neighbor. It too suffered a long civil war. Two in fact. There is still a large UN peace-keeping presence here and tourists aren’t likely to be sunning themselves on Monrovia’s beaches any time soon.

It was almost dark when I entered Liberia’s capital. Much like Freetown, and most African capitals in fact, there is little light on the street at night. This makes seeing the cavernous holes, which can be anything from 1ft-6ft deep, somewhat difficult. A strong dynamo-light would be a useful addition for cycling through Africa.

My outdated guidebook to west Africa provides scarce detail on Liberia, and like the FCO website, warns against travel outside of Monrovia. Personally I always feel safer in African villages than I do in any of their cities. How long I’m here for I don’t know. Several weeks ago a number of keys on my laptop decided to stop working. Efforts to remove and clean the keyboard have proven unsuccessful. I could of course continue without, but writing a blog update using the on-screen keyboard is really a test of one’s patience (this is being typed on a good old-fashioned Internet Cafe PC). So I’m here waiting in Monrovia whilst a replacement keyboard makes its way from the UK to me. This may also require some patience.

 

First night in Liberia