Hour 0: Waiting at dusk outside the Customs Office in Koundara. Taxis returning to Guinea from the Senegalese markets must stop here to get a stamp. Cellou has agreed to run and ask the drivers of incoming cars if they have a seat, or half a seat, or anything, available onwards to Labe. Kilometers remaining until Labe: 255.
Hour 1: At dusk, as the rain started, Cellou found a taxi. “Only the trunk is available. Is that OK?” I need to get to Labe, then Conakry, as fast as possible. We meet the taxi in town where they stopped to let everyone get dinner. Most had been in the car since midday and were hungry. The rain becomes serious. The driver didn’t want to go out and move bags out of the trunk up onto the roof rack in the rain. Kilometers remaining: 255.
Hour 2: We moved. Everyone in, and most of the stuff except the toolbox and the driver’s clothes in a plastic bag and a 5-liter jug for water cleared out of the trunk. Inflated my thermarest and arranged it in the back. So clever! Stopped at the edge of town to have a tire repaired. The road ahead is unforgiving and long, spare highly advised. The Senegalese-built highway leading south into the interior is smooth and wide and amazing, but the tarmac won’t last. The car’s suspension is worn, and so at 90 km/h the rear springs create an impressive harmonic. My semi-reclined position aft of the rear axle forces me to be rocked to sleep. Kilometers remaining: 247.
Hour 3: We come to a stop, and I wake up. It’s 22h30. We have a flat. Good thing we got that spare fixed! Bad thing we got a flat already, and now have no more spare, and we haven’t even left the pavement. The driver doesn’t shut off the engine. It is loud, but better than pushing the car to start it. I pee off the embankment of the highway and we are off again. Kilometers remaining: 193.
Hour 4: We leave the pavement with a bump. It is pouring rain. In the trunk the blackness of the night is compounded by the heavy tint on the rear window, I can see almost nothing. I peel back a small portion of the film and make a hole for one eye through which I can see the rain drops reflecting the white light of the broken taillamps. The trunk seems mostly watertight, and any dampness is blocked by the thermarest. My memory reminds me that the worst bits of the road will be coming soon, just after the pavement ends. I wish I could see the road ahead, it seems to be adequately illuminated by the headlights. Judging from the angle of the car (severe), the sound of the exhaust (burbling), and the level of ambient light (drops to almost nothing), some of the puddles are deeper than the headlights of the car. I remember seeing that one of the rear tires was a studded mud+snow model. It seems to be helping us along. Occasionally I get a glimpse of the road ahead, when the passengers in the three rows of seats in front of me all duck at the same time. It looks like a lake, or a beach at high tide. The frogs are deafening. Kilometers remaining: 176.
Hour 5: We reach Kounsitel, the intersection where the road splits to go either to Labe or to Conakry via Gaoual. A truck stop of sorts. At the police checkpoint right before the driver stops and opens the trunk. “Give the money,” he tells me. “All of it?” “Yeah.” So I gave him a hundred thousand Guinean francs, more than usual cost of a ticket, and certainly more than usual for the undesirable trunk spot. He used some of it to pay the cops. At Kounsitel he shuts off the car by letting it die in gear. It is raining hard, it is twenty two minutes past midnight. The twenty five kilometers of unpaved road we have traversed in the past hour have caused the roof rack to loosen from its rain gutter mountings and slide forward. A few more bumps and the rack, along with some three hundred kilograms of baggage, would have come through the windshield. The driver and the mechanic-boys at the truck stop break two ropes trying to pull the rack and baggage back into place, tying it to a tree and driving away. Finally someone brings out a metal cable and, after breaking off one crossbar of the rack, they manage to yank it back into place. Unfortunately no one has a wrench that fits the mounting bolts, so we can’t tighten it. Kilometers remaining: 160.
Hour 6: I am sleeping. I think we are making progress. Kilometers remaining: approx. 145.
Hour 7: When I wake up the taxi is stopped and shut off. We must be at the ferry, perhaps waiting until dawn for the ferrymen to ferry us across the surely-swollen river. The women in the seat in front of me are sleeping. I reinflate the thermarest and go back to sleep. Kilometers remaining: 130.
Hour 8: It is 4h15. I get out of the trunk and see many other taxis parked around us. But we are on the side of a mountain, not at the bottom of a valley. So the ferry isn’t here. We are stopped for some other reason. The rain has also stopped. Kilometers remaining: 130.
Hour 9: At 6h15 I wake up again. I walk to the front of the line of the cars and there is a landslide blocking the road. Big rocks, and plenty of dirt. I can see where a few rocks have been pushed away to allow motorcycles to squeeze by. The sky lightens. The jungle below is misty, and there is an orange spillage on the horizon. In my mind I had mistaken dawn for a fire. The light is continuing to increase and people are waking up and starting to mill about and find water with which to do their ablutions. I see one older gentleman who has placed his prayer mat at a bend in the road beyond where the taxis and a truck are parked, perfectly aligned with the fiery sunrise. Kilometers remaining: 130.
Hour 10: Once everyone has prayed, and complained about not having any breakfast, we congregate around the rubble blocking the road. A man in military costume has the loudest ideas, and slowly the other men follow his lead and move the largest rocks they can off to the side, below the edge of the road where it has been blocked. A fallen tree acts as a backstop of sorts, and the pile of rocks clinging to the slope slowly grows. Kilometers remaining: 130.
Hour 11: Soon all the rocks larger than a fist have been scavenged from the surrounding area, and our new pile is beginning to approximate a road. Someone procures a large hammer, and breaks down the edge of the largest rock that juts into the new right-of-way. Will the new route be wide enough for cars to pass? Will the rocky roadbed stay stuck to the hillside, or will it tumble down as soon as the weight of a loaded taxi passes over it? One man is taking some pictures of the slide and the work in progress. He is reprimanded by the military man. He says he is a foreigner, and needs to have a picture to document for his work why he is so delayed. Later I speak with him, he was born in Sierra Leone but now resides in Belgium with wife and kids, who are in the car waiting for the new road. He congratulates me on my Pulaar and asks if I am a Muslim because of the name I give him, and the Arabic that peppers even my French. The road is made. Maybe it’s wide enough! There is a very heated discussion about the order in which the cars should pass. Respect the order or arrival! But there isn’t enough space! My car is smaller! Drivers run to their cars. One car goes, goes, spins in the mud, spins in the mud, and passes! We all cheer and clap. Kilometers remaining: 130.
Hour 12: All of the cars pass, even the LandCruiser that is 6 inches wider than the taxis and gets stuck halfway through the detour, each rev of the engine and spin of the wheels bringing the car closer to sliding sideways down the slope. Except ours. We parked facing uphill, but of course the car needs to be push-started. So we push-three-point-turn (more like seven points actually) and then push down the mountain a bit to get some speed and finally the engine coughs and then roars. Our taxi scrambles and slides by, and we are back on the road. I give some cookies to everyone. Kilometers remaining: 127.
Hour 13: We rumble along. I can see now, it is daylight, and not raining. The road is bad and bumpy and I fear for the tires. It’s not worth worrying about the suspension, it is already toasted. We stop once to try and tighten the baggage rack at a local mechanic’s stop, and we wash our muddy shoes in the stream. Kilometers remaining: 105.
Hour 14: After a knobby descent we arrive at the ferry. But the brakes are broken. So we wait for while another mechanic unsuccessfully fixes the master cylinder using the film from and old cassette. After, a friendly tree helps put the baggage rack back into place. The river is high, and swift, but there is still a substantial slope down the bank and then up the loading ramp of the tiny ferry. Our intrepid driver, brakeless and starterless, makes a dumb decision and purposefully kills the engine during the descent, expecting that he will have enough momentum to make it up the ramp but not so much as to coast off the other end of the ferry into the river. Of course the taxi is going too slowly and doesn’t make it up the ramp, and is now stuck in the low point between the bank and the loading ramp, engine off, brakeless, in several inches of water. Someone makes a comment about a boxcar being a more suitable mode of transportation, given that our car has no starter and no brakes and apparently no driver. Together, the passengers and ferrymen, with the help of a length of chain, pushed and pulled the loaded taxi onto the ferry. Then we pushed it backwards as far as safely possible so that there would be enough space (maybe 30 feet?) to push start the car off the ferry. The crossing takes ten minutes with two men cranking the cogwheel that pulls the ferry along the chain. The driver pays the two-dollar fee plus, after some haggling, a bit extra for the ferrymen who helped push and pull the car into place. Kilometers remaining: 97.
Hour 15: We push the car off the ferry just as the engine roars and sprays thick black smoke all over us. Then, on the other side, a second mechanic re-rebuilds the master cylinder, and a third uses a sledgehammer and a crescent wrench to tighten the baggage rack. I dry my shoes and socks and insoles and feet in the sun. Kilometers remaining: 97.
Hour 16: We give one youth a lift to his village a few kilometers down the road (he just stands on the bumper and grasps the baggage rack). He gives the driver a smoked fish in return, which the driver places next to me in the trunk on top of the toolbox. It is very warm, and smells a little bit like bacon, because I’m hungry. There are many cows on the road. We drive around them through mud puddles. Kilometers remaining: 89.
Hour 17: We pass two trucks on the side of the road. One is upright. The other is not. It appears that it rolled over trying to avoid a mudhole. The people standing around say no one was hurt, and the presence of the second truck (into which the goods from the first, sideways one will be loaded) is proof that things will be okay. The truckers ask us to return the bowl and platter their lunch of rice and sauce was served on to the village a few kilometers down the road. They have probably waiting there for two days. Soon after we all get out of the car to lighten it as the driver navigates a particularly treacherous looking section of mudholes. He balances the tires on the high ridges between the ruts, only sliding into the deep mud once. Just beyond, the LandCruiser that scraped past the landslide ahead of us has broken down; their radiator burst just after the muddy section. They are coming from the Gambia, on their way to Labe. It will likely take them three days to make their voyage. We get out a few more times for muddy spots, and I reinflate my leaky thermarest. Kilometers remaining: 80.
Hour 18: Our driver stops to disconnect the radiator fan, which is wired directly to the battery. Now that we are moving a bit faster he doesn’t think it’s necessary. For reasons unknown, he shuts off the engine to perform this task. Remember, we have no starter. And he has stopped at a low spot in the road, forcing us to push the car up a slight grade to try and get it started. We try five times, pushing the car through a multi-point turn after each failure. Finally, with the help of two men on a passing motorcycle, the car gains enough momentum to force the engine over and it roars to life. Everyone back in! I am soaked in sweat, and the trunk feels perhaps hotter than being outside. We stop in the village to return the platter and buy ten liters of diesel, and the driver has the good sense to leave the engine running the whole time. I like that the rear window is tinted, I can watch all the people but they can’t see me. A boy stands behind the car watching the hot air from the exhaust buffet his pants, clearly amused. His face saddens as we drive off. Kilometers remaining: 72.
Hour 19: We pass villages where the corn is tall and ripe. Then the road climbs and twists up and up through the mountains, affording me, in the trunk, excellent views of the valley we came from. Three months ago, when I last took this trip, there were women and girls selling buckets of mangos for eighty cents at every wide spot in the road. Now there are no roadside vendors, only cows. Two motorcycles pass us, each carrying two people well wrapped up in raingear and winter coats. One of the four people is even wearing a helmet. Perhaps they too are also coming from Koundara. We bump down the other side of the crest, and without any fanfare suddenly the right-of-way becomes wider, the trees having been cut down for ten meters on either side. We have reached the section of road under construction! In a year or two there will be beautiful two-lane asphalt from here all the way to Labe. Right now they are cutting and filling and grading and placing enormous culverts to prevent the road from being washed away during the rainy season. We are moving faster, and the people facing forward can see the town of Thiangol Bori (Pulaar for Rushing Stream), six kilometers ahead. Kilometers remaining: 54.
Hour 20: There is a clunking sound, a new and ominous one, every time we hit a bump. Everyone in the car notices it, but the driver pretends not to hear. Finally a woman in the middle row speaks up. “Hey listen to that, what’s that sound?” The driver continues on without acknowledgment, bumping over the road that has been well beaten by the trucks and heavy equipment of the Chinese contractors. We pass a steamroller and a dumptruck making a nice flat road; of course we are ten meters to the side on a bumpy detour. Finally another person expresses their concern over the ominous noise and the driver stops the car in the middle of the road. He gets out of the car and looks at the right rear wheel, where the sound seemed to be coming from, and makes a silly, guilty face that only I can see (everyone else is forward of the rear wheel). “What is it?” The driver doesn’t respond, and keeps making that face. Clearly it is not his nature to get mad or frustrated. We all get out of the car. A quick inspection of the rear wheel shows that the two (of four) remaining wheel studs have both been pulled loose from the hub, and the wheel, barely attached, has been moving about freely, ovaling the bolt holes and destroying the hub. A small bottle jack and other miscellaneous tools are produced from the trunk, and the driver attempts to remove the wheel. Unfortunately, the now-detached wheel studs just spin, instead of allowing the lugnuts to be loosened. Kilometers remaining: 50.
Hour 21: The women in the car have spread out scarves or blankets on the side of the road, and are resting, enjoying the space. No one seems angry or scared. We can see Thiangol Bori, and the large camp built to house all the Chinese trucks, in the valley below. There are impressive clouds, but no rain. A taxi overtakes us and our driver waves it down. They too are coming from Koundara, although they left this morning. When the car stops, three people get down from the roof rack, and two emerge from the trunk. The driver of this taxi undoes his spare tire and gives it to our driver (remember that our spare was put on the car last night, outside of Koundara). Then they are off. Even if we wanted to catch a ride with them there is no space in the car. Our driver reaches behind the broken wheel and detaches the axle and hub, with wheel and tire still attached. These Peugot 505s have a solid rear axle, ideal for ease of repair and durability. Our driver, like most, travels with a spare axle-hub assembly, more or less complete and in working order. There are only three wheel studs, but that’s still better than two broken ones. Then the newly procured spare goes on, and the repair is complete. Or almost complete; because the wheel could not be removed from the original assembly, our new setup does not have a brake drum or shoes, meaning no brakes. But that’s okay, we’ve been in this situation before. The broken axle-hub-wheel-tire assembly goes in the trunk. I sit up front, with the driver and two other passengers. We head onwards to Thaingol Bori. Kilometers remaining: 49.
Hour 22: We stop to eat rice and sauce in Thiangol Bori, the first real food we’ve had since leaving Koundara. I buy a warm Coke and some bananas. The car goes to the mechanic, who extracts the old rear wheel and rebuilds the hub. He also patches the radiator so we shouldn’t have to keep refilling it. Then we are again on our way. Kilometers remaining: 45.
Hour 23: The road from Thiangol Bori on is good; wide and well graded. We make good time, but at dusk we are still a ways from Labe. Our driver turns on the headlights to pierce the encroaching darkness, and that unique smell of burning plastic wire insulation trickles into the car. The headlights go dim. He stops and checks under the hood—indeed a short has taken out our high and low beams, and right at dusk. We continue onward, albeit a bit more cautiously. Oncoming cars and motorcycles blind us, slowing us to a crawl. Kilometers remaining: 8.
Hour 24: A soft rain starts, further darkening the situation. At least the windshield wipers work. We stop at a gas station a few kilometers outside town to drop of one passenger. Her bags are at the bottom of the pile on top of the roof. Fifteen minutes later we are on the road again, and the solar-powered streetlamps of Labe make the driving much easier. We reach the main traffic circle at the entrance to town, and I get out. I get out! It is nighttime, exactly one day ago I was getting into a taxi to come to Labe. Now, I must walk the two kilometers to the main taxi station (the Koundara taxi goes to the Koundara station, on the other side of town), and try to find an overnight car to Conakry, four hundred kilometers away. Kilometers remaining: 0.