In lieu of an expensive out of country vacation for the holidays myself, Mathew Cramer, Debbie Dezutter, Elena Pellizzaris, Brenda Pigeon, Will Traynor, and Andrew Tyler drove down to Harper, Liberia. Harper is the capital city of Maryland County. It’s on the South Eastern most tip of Liberia. It’s the furthest city you can drive to in Liberia from Monrovia. GPS and Google Map files.
Harper was one of the original cities founded by freed American slaves and has a lot of lovely southern United States influenced architecture. That along with some lovely beaches, and a point or two makes Harper a wonderful destination for a few in-country tourists. We were hoping to just relax in the city, and hopefully discover some new surf spots.
The road to Harper is notorious for being a huge muddy mess. It often becomes completely impassible in the rainy season. But we thought we’d come in the middle of dry season and miss all of that. Boy we’re we wrong.
The problem is a lack of drainage. A puddle of mud forms on the road and then a big 20 ton transport truck drives over it and pushes it down. This makes a little rut. Then another and another. Then after a while the little mud spot is now 6 feet deep “rutt” and even more water and mud have collected in the bottom of it. Then it gets so bad that someone cuts a bypass around that, but then the same thing happens, and the bypass turns into mud and water. As you can see from the picture on the right. These ruts got pretty deep. Here we’re digging out my 4Runner, code named Midnight. The tire ruts were so deep that my suspension was scraping the middle of the “road” and with the low traction I wasn’t able to move forward.
Things started off pretty easy. At first we just encountered low spots in the road with lots of water. Hear on the right you can see Andrew navigating his Xterra, code named Lorma Girl, through a small puddle. However things quickly escalated to 100 yard long ruts full of mud the consistency of oatmeal. On the left is Lorma Girl stuck in a massive rut. On this rut, I had opted to take the incredibly steep bypass to get around it. I’m still kicking myself for not taking a picture of my car scrambling up a 60 degree incline. Andrew opted for the slightly more traditional route and we eventually pushed and pulled him out.
All was well for us until we got about 40 miles south of Kanweaken That’s when we encountered this transport truck stuck in the mud. The truck had been stuck there for over 2 days. What’s more mind numbing is that this vehicle had succeeded in blocking all other traffic on the road. As we pulled up 3 transport trucks and a pick-up were waiting to continue south, and another pick-up was waiting to head north. As we walked up the drivers and passengers in the other vehicles told us to “get out your mats” and take a nap, because it would be a while. The pick-up truck heading north, had been stuck behind the transport truck for a day and a half. A day and a half! Thankfully we were North Americans (Andrew and Elena are Canadian) with a “if it’s not the way you want it, change it” attitude. So we changed it.
We surveyed the situation, decided that the West side of the road was best for a bypass and set to work filling in the mud with dirt, rocks, and bamboo we had cut down. This inspired the captain of the north bound pick-up, who sent his men over to help us dig. Then this inspired the other crews to start building their own road on the other side. After and hour or so of digging and chopping, armed only with two shovels, 3 machetes, and a pick axe, we were across. That was it, that’s all it took, unbelievable. These people had just been sitting there for a day and half. We worked for an hour.
At the risk of being ever so slightly politically incorrect, I’d like to say that this little incident perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with Africa. A problem arises and everyone stops, pulls out their mats and takes a nap. Then some white people show up. These good intentioned, underfunded folks fix the problem just enough to last for them to use it twice, and then leave. Meanwhile, an equally underfunded and unsustainable effort is underway, completely duplicating the other project. I’m not saying why it is this way, or how it got to be such a problem, I’m just saying, that’s the problem. I suppose for this to be a completely accurate analogy I’d have to work in a corruption angle. Anyway…
After that things only got worse and worse. We went through several unbelievably long and muddy ruts. You can see from this picture at the left how deep some of them were. This picture was taken as I stood on the side of the road. I could literally just walk straight across the top of the car to the other side.
For me the worst part came when after 6 hours of plowing through mud we came to a spot we would later dub “The Triple Header” since it was three amazingly muddy sections all in a row. On the 2nd section Matt Cramer, who scouted out the sections and then relayed his findings back to the drivers via walkie talkies, informed me that I needed to back-up and shoot for the middle entrance to the section. It was pitch black, my windows and mirrors were all covered in mud. I knew Andrew was behind me so I backed up keeping an eye on him over my right shoulder, then BAM. I didn’t even know what I had hit. It was dark and I thought there was just road behind me. Turns out it was a abandoned transport truck. Thankfully, I did no damage to it at all. Sadly, I did total deform the rear drivers side of Midnight, and I busted out two of her windows. It did put a damper on things after that.
Minus smashing up my car, the driving was a lot of fun. The progression went from, “Awesome, some mud.” To, “seriously, the road is still getting worse.” And finally, “Bring it on!” By the end of it I had my technique down. 4 low, cause there’s no point in given it less than all you’ve got and getting stuck in 4 high. Gently, yet quickly, depress the gas peddle till the engine soars to 4000RPMs, then your off. Pretty much keep the wheels pointed in the direction of the rut, when you start to slide steer in the direction of the slide, but then back off when you start to straighten out. When you have to jump from one rut to another over steer into it and then quickly correct. Perhaps one of the best compliments I received on the trip was from an elderly Liberian gentlemen we had picked up outside of Fishtown. After I took the high revving, mud slinging, car bouncing, inaugural drive through our newly constructed road he came up to me with a huge smile on his face and said, “Ahh, you good driver.”
We arrived in Harper, 12 hours after departing, tired, very dirty, but safe, and happy. The good people at the Carter Center were kind enough to let us stay at their incredibly accommodating compound in Harper. I hope Laurie, their Harper office manager, is enjoying the bottle of Champagne we left for her in the fridge. We spent a lot of time, sleeping, reading, and relaxing in hammocks on the back porch. It was a great place to just hang out and enjoy having nothing to do.
Like I said we, or at least Matt and I, were hoping to find some new waves to surf. Unfortunately, the waves just weren’t there. We found some wonderful looking spots, but the swell just wasn’t happening. However, we did find some unbelievably lovely beaches. Like Fish Town beach, shown on the left. This is the first beach I’ve been to in Liberia where the water was calm and shallow 100′ out. Usually in Liberia you take 3 steps in and the water is up to your neck. The beaches are normally very steep, but this was anything but. It was also very pristine, as far as you could see there were no buildings, villages, clearings, anything, just water, sand, and palm trees.
Also at Fish Town was Skeleton Island. A few hundred feet from the beach is a small little island, maybe an acre or so big, where they put their dead. But they just leave the coffins above ground on the island. This makes for some rather macabre sites when you arrive on shore. Someone told me that they used to put the bodies there during the war, but I’m not sure why they still do it, and what really started it.
We also took advantage of being so close to Cote D’ Ivoire and popped over on market day. We didn’t have visas but decided to give it a try. The Liberian immigration officer was very nice to us. He asked us what we wanted to do, looked us over, and told us, “sure, just leave the cars.” He even let us park the cars close to his office so they’d be safe. Which was good since I was missing a couple of windows. So we hired a canoe and paddled across the river. Then the Ivorian immigration guys cared even less. He seemed totally uninterested in us white people. Which is strange, usually boarder crossings are a pain, and we didn’t even have the right papers. Anyway. We hung out for a while. The market wasn’t much but we did drink some Ivorian beer which was a nice change of pace. Cramer, met some nice Liberian ladies who were also there for market day and quickly made friends.
The trip back was pretty good. We took the advice of some locals and took the Karloken to Kanweaken bypass. We still had to go through the Triple Header again, but after that we missed a lot of nastiness, and the road was even a little shorter. Don’t ask why we didn’t do this the first time. Here is a little video montage of our 4WD exploits with some cometary.
I’d also like to take this time to talk about what worked and what didn’t work on the trip. Consider this a little product review of must haves, and must leave behinds for intense off-roading, on roads in developing countries. What broke: My expensive off roading Old Man Emu shock absorber. The bolt on the top where the shock attaches to the frame totally sheared off. This made for a very bouncy ride home. I had to be gentle with Midnight over those bumpy roads or else her back end would just swing out. Also we had a fair bit of over heating. Here Matt and I are pouring more water into the radiator. It seemed that caked on mud had a lot to do with it, but the problem persisted even after a few good cleanings. The 4WD system on the 4Runner. I got stuck in a really small bit of mud coming back from Fish Town and realized my front wheels weren’t spinning. After some Googling on my phone using Lonestar’s GPRS service we figured that the 4Runner had a pneumatically actuated front differential that engaged the front wheels and that, that was the problem. But Googling on my phone wasn’t super fast or fun, so I called my dad in the states who Googled around some more and then based on his research suggested we switch the suction lines on the pneumatic actuator. Much to my surprise this worked. We just left 4×4 engaged from Harper to Zwedru. No point in taking chances. The brakes also took some intense wear. It seems the 4Runner has a metal plate around the front disc brakes to protect them, instead this just trapped rocks and mud in there and tore up the brake pads. Midnight is currently at No Lemon. Right now I’m just hoping the bill is under a thousand, cause I still have to pay for the body work.
We had 4 Midland GXT1050 walkie talkies with us. They were great for inter car communication, and coordinating our assaults on the rutts, but the chargers didn’t seem to hold the walkie talks tight enough for charging while on the road. I had a pair of Hela spot lights mounted to the front bumper, they were donated by Nick Conway, a friend back in the states. They were absolutely great for the night driving that we shouldn’t have done, but had no choice to do. I was also impressed with my Asolo boots. They were totally covered in mud, but my feet and socks were dry and clean. Also the wicking north face pants, and REI shirt I had were great. Depsite the heat, I recommend long pants for such trips, you’re gonna get dirty. Also the generic tow rope, shovels, machetes, bottles of water, and 2.5 million candle power flashlight were must haves. Andrew had a Wern winch that was super handy for pulling out other people, though we never needed it on our own cars.
And that’s about it,