Monday 17 June 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Guinea-Bissau to Guinea

Dear Viven,

I’ve never been more exhilerated or exhausted with a border crossing.  There is a story behind this one, but in this letter I’ll leave out the adventure and try to focus on the details.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we crossed the border on 13-14 June 2013.  We are one British and one Canadian, driving a 1996 right-hand drive Toyota Hilux Surf from Paris to Tanzania.

Our previous crossing was from Senegal to Guinea-Bissau.

Visas were required in advance.  We visited the Embassy of the Republic of Guinea in Dakar when it opened at 9am on a Monday morning.  A few minutes later we were sent by a friendly security guard along with a few other early-birds to a small courtyard in the back, where a man took photos of some applicants, but not us, and then we completed the circle back to the waiting room at the front.  We waited until 10am, when we were given visa application forms in French.

At about this time, the l'attache consulaire opened and began processing the African (presumably Senegalese) applicants, who had to fingerprint themselves onto their form using a pad on the centre table of the waiting room.  We were excluded from this.  Also, the Photo Man returned and asked us to come with him for photos, but the security guard stopped us and said it was not necessary because we had brought our own.

At 11am we were summoned out to the courtyard offices again, with two other Spanish applicants, and met by a woman who processed the visas.  Photo Man returned, asked us to come with him, and we said no, witnessing other applicants pay him CFA 3,000 each for their photo.  We said we had our own.   The woman then told us it was necessary, that our own photos were not accepted.  We asked for a receipt, were given a receipt that both Photo Man and us knew meant nothing, paid up, knowing no way out of the scam (our route must include Guinea), and followed the woman into her office.

Here, she announced that the British one-month single-entry visa would cost CFA 35,000, while the Canadian visa could only be a three-month multi-entry, at CFA 65,000.  We argued about the gouge but she said (lied for money) that it was all she could do.  We paid, were told to return tomorrow at 10am, and left.

Insurance and Carnet
Both our Brown Card insurance and carnet de passages were necessary to enter Guinea from Guinea-Bissau.

By crossing into Guinea we returned to French West Africa, which in terms of language is a lot more comfortable for us than Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony.  French is both official and widely spoken in Guinea, while English is rare and mostly heard in the fledgling tourist industry.

Guinea is a senseless pain in the ass when it comes to money, an island in an ocean of Central African Francs.  Its currency is the Guinean franc (GNF), and one euro exchanges to about 10,000.  It was not possible for us to acquire francs in advance, so we waited until our arrival in Conakry, where it is suggested to use the black market for changing over instead of the banks.  CFAs were usable until then, and are possibly accepted by everyone, though not always at the best rate.  There are several Visa-only ATMs in Conakry, but they limit withdrawals to GNF 300,000 (about €30).

The Route & Border
We left Bissau, headed generally east, and on the same day crossed the Guinea-Bissau/Guinea border near Quebo.  We originally planned to take the route north, via the Fouta Djallon Plateau.  Note that our route could only be done with a 4x4, that it is almost certainly impassable at the height of the rainy season, and that we were totally alone on the road once we exited Guinea-Bissau.  We spotted only motorcycles and (parked) army trucks after Weling, about 53km before Boké, and no other cars until Boké itself.  There is one crossing by cable- ferry, which only takes about ten minutes to cross the river, but with traffic or breakdowns could cause a major delay.  There is no gas station between Quebo and Boké.

We arrived at Gandembel at 2pm to receive our Guinea-Bissau exit stamps in our passports and carnet de passages.  The police at the entrance to the town stamped the former, while a very kind and tranquil gentleman did the latter.  He said we were the first to do the crossing in one week.  This process took 20 minutes, mostly to walk between the two stamps and to chat, and was completely hassle-free.

We arrived at a Guinean post with a French flag flying at 3pm.  Our passports and carnet de passages were stamped by the former army captain’s assistant.  We did not notice until after that these stamps were for ‘exiting Sansale’, and not actual entry stamps for Guinea.  We were assured the man and the stamps were legitimate, but cannot verify this.  Nonethless, we were asked for a fee to ‘lift the barrier’ (a common request, and one we usually refuse and wait out), and paid a small CFA 1,100 (about €2).  This process took 20 minutes.

At 4:40pm we arrived at the Kibanko military camp, where soldiers were confused by our presence and took a while to study our documents.  We were let through after 30 minutes, and just down the muddy, rocky hill we found the ferry.  We waited about 20 minutes for the ferry, and then crossed in ten.  The ferry operator requested GNF 40,000 (about €5), which we didn’t have, and instead paid him CFA 4,000 (about €6).

At 6pm we arrived at Kissomaya, where the police immigration officer shouted at us for no good reason, until we gleaned he meant we didn’t yet have entry stamps for Guinea (we thought, without looking, that the Sansale stamps were sufficient) then gave us new stamps in both our passports and carnet de passage.  We had to pay CFA 2,100 (about €3) to have the barrier lifted, again accepted by us because there was no one else to open it and let us through. This process took ten minutes.

Thinking we had passed into Guinea completely, we spent the night in Weling, about 12km before Dabiss.  We left Weling at 6:30 the next morning and not far past Dabiss we found ourselves at another military camp, where the gendarmes, military and Douane official all inspected our documents.  After 15 minutes they determined we needed an escort to Boké, where yet another official would have to take a look.  The Douane official who rode with us also brought his chicken, which sat on Al’s lap for the 35km ride, and in Boké he gave our documents to his superior.  The man gave a thorough look and let us go.  We realised the true purpose behind the escort: the Douane officer needed a lift home for the weekend.  Not thinking the ride was sufficient, however, he asked us for money for the ride back, as if we had inconvenienced him.  We said we had no money with us, and he gave us his number so we could wire him the money after the weekend.  We won’t.

A final step to our crossing was a gendarme checkpoint past Boké.  Though we were now firmly in Guinea, it should be noted that we were here asked to show our Yellow Fever vaccination certificates.

What We Needed

In Dakar
  • Money: CFA 100,000 (about €153) for visas, plus CFA 6,000 (about €9) for the photos scam
  • Passports
  • About two and a quarter hours, though this could have been less 
At the border and ferry
  • About CFA 8,200 (about €13)
  • Passports with Guinean visas, exit-stamped in Gandembel and entry-stamped in Kissomaya
  • Carnet de passages, exit-stamped in Gandembel and entry-stamped in Kissomaya
  • Brown Card insurance document
    After the border
    • Yellow Fever vaccination certificates

    There are advantages and sacrifices both to crossing a border in the middle of nowhere.  You meet great people who are happy to meet and help you, on the one hand; on the other, it is a lot easier for border officials to take advantage.  For this one, the mix came out in favour of the former.  Just make sure you’ve got a good set of wheels (all four of which will need to drive) and the right timing if you attempt the same.

    Happy trails,