Tuesday 2 July 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Sierra Leone to Liberia

Dear Viven,

This border crossing was accompanied by a flat tire - followed by another, in Liberia not long before we reached the Ivory Coast, the next day.  That being said, both the Sierra Leonians and the Liberians rival each other in terms of friendliness, and gave us another nice surprise when we went through this whole crossing without being asked for money or gifts.  Acquiring the visa, on the other hand, was a little tougher.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we crossed the border on 22 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 Guinea to Sierra Leone, and our next crossing will be from Liberia to the Ivory Coast.

Visas were required in advance.  On 4 June we visited the Embassy of Liberia in Dakar, Senegal.  The embassy is very difficult to find, and we could not find a single cab driver who knew where it was.  The following address only directed them to the general vicinity:

Villa No. 10226, Sacre-Coeur 3
VDN Extension

We were asked for a letter of recommendation, which we did not have.  To suffice, we wrote a letter on the spot to the Consul requesting a one-week transit visa.  The secretary told us we would have no problem getting our visas,  and said we could receive them after an interview the following day at 11am, after paying the fees.

We returned early on 5 June, paid different rates for each of us, and waited for 45 minutes.  The interview took only five minutes, and we were informed that because we did not reside in Senegal it isn't usually possible to get visas for the rate we paid.  Normal tourist visas cost CFA 90,000 per person.  But our interviewer, Philip, told us to call him back at 2pm to see if he could work something out.

We called the embassy at 2pm.  The number alternated between being busy and not working at all.  We returned to the embassy at 2:30pm only to find a notice stating that it was shut for the rest of the week from 2pm.  We had no choice but to leave it for the day.

We returned the next day (6 June) at 10am and were told that we needed to pay the full CFA 90,000 each for the visas.  We said we would go to the embassy in Sierra Leone, as they would have the rates originally given, but were informed that the fees paid the day before were non-refundable.  In a bind and not wanting to give them our money for nothing, we capitulated and paid.  We were told they would be ready shortly, but we had to wait for the Consul to arrive at 2pm.

At 2pm we were each given 90-day single-entry visas, valid from the date of entry.

Insurance and Carnet
Both our Brown Card insurance and one page of our carnet de passages was required for entry into Liberia.  Officials in Liberia are clearly not used to overland travelers, and both at the border and at police checkpoints across the country they looked at our carnet with bewilderment.  Nonetheless, with some confident and assuaging talk, we got through without issue - though we did have to indicate where to punch the stamp.

Liberia, being founded privately by freed American slaves in the 19th century and sharing as much US heritage it can muster (licence plates, people's name, the flag), shares with Sierra Leone the official English language.  Most people we encountered spoke English, as no other tribal or creole language in Liberia forms a majority.

Liberia uses the Liberian dollar (LRD), which is a lot easier to understand than other currencies such as the Guinean franc or the Sierra Leonian Leone for the simple fact that each unit is worth more, and is evenly valued with the euro: €1 = LRD 100.  Larger bills, however, are difficult to find, as are ATMs (Visa only) outside Monrovia, the capital.  We exchanged our remaining Leones at the border at a rate of SLL 5,000 = LRD 85, plus with some of our reserve US dollars, at a rate of $1 = LRD 75.

The Route
We stayed at Bureh Beach, on Freetown's peninsula, and drove on the main roads toward Liberia.  Sierra Leone's roads are terrific up to and a little past Freetown from Guinea, and remain good going east until Kenema, where suddenly they deteriorate to poor, pot-holed piste.  The drive from Kenema to the border at Gendema is long, arduous and perhaps in heavy rain, totally impassable.  We did see a few regular cars on the later stretches of the road, but I would advise any driver to have either a 4x4 or motorcycle for this route.  At one point we got stuck in the mud and needed to use our sand ladders, spade and towing cable all in one go.

That being said, we were told too late at the border that the road which turns off towards Gendema at Bo (before Kenema) is better and easier to pass through in the rainy season.  No map indicates as much, so take this with the same grain of salt we take every time someone says (and there's always someone who does) that the road improves in just a few kilometers more.  Add further salt to the report that the road should be paved from Kenema all the way to the border by September of this year.

The Border
About 40km from the border we were inspected and questioned by police and customs officials at Zimmi, who had stamps for our passports and carnet de passages but said we would be processed at Gendema.  While there, a police officer tried to charge us for an 'infraction' of not properly obeying the roundabout, which does not look like a roundabout, is not signed as a roundabout, and, given the lack of anybody else on the road and the fact that this is rural Africa, does not warrant going in a wide circle like an idiot.  I got quite angry, especially when the cop called me "white man", which I think is just a racist as me calling him "black man", as if the colour of our skin makes any difference at all.  He fumed and threatened to bring me to the station, to where I was happy to go have his ass handed to him, and eventually he calmed down at the behest of Tom, the customs official, who then tried to placate us, hoping we wouldn't report the event.

We arrived at Gendema at 3pm and passed through a vehicle inspection point, where we were issued a receipt without any inspection.  We brought the receipt to the large building to the left, where both customs and immigration officials worked together.  The officials were very friendly, and brought us buckets of water to wash off the mud which caked our whole bodies (at one point while stuck I had to practically swim in the mud under the truck to recover a sand ladder).

The police stamped our passports, made mention of needing to see our yellow fever vaccination certificates but never followed through, and an immigration official stated that the carnet de passages was no good, that we needed another document from the Sierra Leone embassy in our country of residence.  Because the carnet was already entry-stamped, there was nothing he could do, but he did say that if he was the official who saw us on entry, he would not have let us through.  He was, of course, wrong about this, but wanted us to know that he was big and strong and had a lot of power over us puny civilian tourists.

After a good chat with a whole gang of laughing, buddy-buddy officials - and the immigration officer glaring at us to the side of the fun - we got back to the truck to find a flattening tire, caused by a screw: not flat yet, because it was held in by the screw, but losing air.  By 3:40pm made it across the bridge to Bo Waterside in Liberia, and the tire let its last air out as we turned the engine off beside the first checkpoint.  After we were cleared and our details entered into the books, we went to the building with both customs and immigration (the Liberians, following the US, call their service "Immigration and Naturalization") and followed the signs indicating where we needed to go.  Everything was clear, straightforward, and relatively quick - and nobody asked for money.

We changed money right beside this building on the Liberian side, and were able to play the changers off each other to get better rates.

While getting our passports and carnet processed, we found a local mechanic with a jack who helped install our spare tire.  He asked for LRD 375, and we gave him 400 (€4).  Thus, there was no real delay because of the puncture, and we were on our way by 4:30pm.

The whole process from arrival to departure took an hour and a half.

What We Needed

In Dakar
  • Money: CFA 180,000 (90,000 each) for visa fees
  • Passports
  • Passport photos, two each
  • Three days, hours of waiting, and extreme patience for diplomatic bullshit and greed
At the border
  • Passports with Liberian visas
  • One page of our carnet de passages
  • LRD 400 to rent a jack and change a tire
  • No forms to fill
  • 1.5 hours
Even with the flat tire in mind, because of the friendliness of both Sierra Leonians and Liberians, this crossing (excepting the visa process) was not only easy, straightforward and free, but also a good deal of fun.

Happy trails,


The road to Liberia. We didn't take photos when we were stuck,
but rest assured we got very muddy, very fast.