‘If you cross this line you may be engaged by fire’, read the sign behind the barbed wire fence. It was almost dark and I had no idea where to sleep the night. “Salaam Aleikum”, I called out to a soldier looking down at me from a watchtower. “Aleikum Salaam” came the reply.

I was outside a Pakistani UN compound some 120km from Monrovia and looking for a safe spot to pitch my tent. A short distance back down the road the overweight proprietress of a roadside restaurant had refused me permission to camp, preferring instead that I take a room. The place had no electricity or running water. She wanted $50 and wasn’t very interested in bargaining.

“Are you a Muslim?” asked the moustached soldier after he climbed down from his post and we shook hands across the barbed wire. “No, but I like your country” I replied with a smile.

Several minutes later I  was introduced to several officers, seated with a cup of tea and shown my private room for the night. The commander came forward to introduce himself, gave a brief history of the battalion and probably wondered what the hell I was doing riding my bicycle through Liberia. He would have thought the same thing had we met in Pakistan.

“You cycled through Pakistan in 2007?” one of the officers later exclaimed as I scooped up a mouthful of chana masala with a hot fresh chapati.“That was a very bad year for us”. Citing the recent floods I politely asked what year in recent history hadn’t been a bad one for Pakistan, and thought it a far less secure country to be in right now than Liberia. They might have agreed, but the conversation moved on and I was soon showing them pictures of cycling up the Karakorum Highway. What I wouldn’t give for some of that mountain scenery right now.

On the Karakorum Highway, Pakistan

Breakfast was served the following morning at 7.30am sharp. I had been asked several times the night before what time I would eat, how I wanted my eggs cooked and whether I preferred chapatis or parathas. The officers didn’t join me. I think they took breakfast at 4am, before the first prayer of the day and the fasting that would follow. I had been reminded that as a non-Muslim I didn’t have to observe Ramadan. Thank God for that.

Camp for the night

My over-dose of Muslim hospitality left me feeling a bit disorientated when I said goodbye. As with the ex-pat company in Monrovia it had been easy to forget I was in Liberia. This was another World transplanted into Africa. Organizations working for the people, but often so far away from them. And here I was slipping from one World to another as a matter of choice..

The next night I chose to stay in a brothel, although I was very tempted to call in at a Bangladeshi UN compound and see how they fared with the Pakistanis in the hospitality stakes. I say brothel in as much as it was the cheapest guest-house around ($7 for a single room in which I could touch all four walls when lying on the  hollow foam mattress) light bulbs in the place were red and it was in a border town. It’s often enough to go on. A few kilometres up the road was Guinea.

The town of Ganta wasn’t such a bad place though. It had women grilling fresh fish and kebabs on the street at night, people smiled at me and I could drink cold beer without receiving any hassle. Cold beer disappears quickly after cycling 140km, and club beer, Liberia’s own, isn’t too bad.

The tarmac ends in Ganta, and it’s where I thought the real jungle would begin. My Michellin map of north-west Africa shades Liberia in a pale green, with a key denoting the colour as ‘dense jungle’. How very inaccurate. Some stretches of land outside Monrovia appear more like moorland than tropical jungle – an apocalyptic landscape of bare brown slopes. Very sad. Where there is forestation it is often in the form of rubber and palm plantations. Pretty monotonous on the eyes after a while. I haven’t taken many photos recently.

UN bridge

Fortunately, like Sierra Leone the spirit of the people goes a long way to make up for the dull-ness in the landscape. I feel little threat or insecurity out on the road here, although it’s slightly disconcerting when a convoy of UN trucks passes me by. People smile, wave, laugh and look-on with incredulous faces from outside their huts. If I stop or slow down they’ll be sure to ask ‘What is your mission?‘. A few days ago I heard someone announcing that I was an evangelist. People cheered and clapped as I waved back in hysterics. I was actually trying to say I was on an adventure. I guess the words aren’t that dissimilar in sounding.

The usual suspects

Road to Zwedru

I’m writing this from the compound of an NGO in the town of Zwedru. Approximately 200km over an undulating red-laterite road, more dusty than muddy, has brought me here from Ganta. Another 300km lie ahead to the coastal border with the Ivory Coast. This, according to various sources, is a terrible stretch of road. I’m glad the rains have lessened. It will be interesting to see how my new $4 tyre I bought in the market here copes. After 12,500km the front tyre developed a large split several days ago. It’s a pity Schwalbe tyres aren’t available in this part of the World. Anyone wish to donate a spare?

Tyre spilt