Saturday, December 12, 2009

Getting around in Sierra Leone

Although I have talked in previous posts about some of the challenges in getting around in this country, I wanted to do kind of a summary post about the various transportation options, and my experiences with them.

One of the problems with transportation options here is that there are the very expensive options and the dirt cheap options, and not too much in between. So, for example, you can the regular car ferry from the airport in Lungi across to Freetown at a cost of 2,000 Le (about $0.60). It’s cheap, but you have to arrive early, wait for the ferry, which sometimes leaves late or early (or occasionally does not go at all) and then it takes about an hour to get across. Or, you can take the helicopter or the hovercraft, which will get you to Freetown in about 20 minutes, but which both cost around $60 US.

By far the best option for getting around the country by motor vehicle is in a private vehicle, preferably a newer, 4x4 type of vehicle. Fortunately for me, this is the way I have mostly travelled. I haven’t rented a car while I’ve been here, but I think it’s fairly expensive – $100/day or so. This is because of the price of fuel (about $4 CDN a gallon) and because you can’t just rent a car by itself, you need a driver too. And trust me, you definitely need a driver! I’ve been lucky enough just to have to pay for fuel, but this is expensive too. For example, to go to Freetown and back is about 250,000 Le in fuel (about $70 CDN). In comparison, if I take public transportation, it will cost me 12,000 Le each way from Makeni (so about $15 CDN).

If you don’t have access to a private vehicle or the money to pay for one, you are stuck taking public transportation. This in itself can be quite an adventure. I’m lucky that in the few times I’ve had to take public transportation, I’ve never had too much of an adventure, but I certainly know people who have. For short trips (like around Makeni, or even Makeni to Mapaki), a motorbike taxi (or occada) is a great option. The only downside of occadas is that it’s hard to carry anything big or heavy on them (although people certainly do – I saw someone carrying a double bed headboard on an occada once). Also, in Freetown occadas can be a little scary because they go quickly and zip in and out of traffic quite a bit. I only took an occada once in Freetown, and that was enough.

Another option is a public taxi or poda poda. A poda poda is a big van that on the inside, instead of the original seats, you will find 4 benches that each seat 4-5 people. Plus at least 2 in the front seat next to the driver. So you’re talking about approximately 20 people in said van, plus sometimes there are one or more sitting on top or hanging off the back (see the photo above!). I have only ever taken a poda poda within Freetown. I wouldn’t take one on the highway, they just seem far too dangerous for that. Happily, they are cheap, only 800 Le for a one way ride in Freetown. Unhappily, they are hot, squishy and generally uncomfortable.

A public taxi is a better option than a poda poda, especially for longer distance trips. They are still squishy and hot – they seat 2 people in front with the driver and at least 4 in the back. But the cars that do long distance trips seem to often be in better working condition than the local taxis in Freetown and the poda podas, and if you wanted to you could pay for 2 seats to be more comfortable.

Regardless of whether you take a poda poda or a taxi, the process is similar. You go to the place where the vehicles gather (each city has a main spot). You find a vehicle that is going where you want to go. You get in to claim your spot and wait for it to fill up. Sometimes this can take 5 minutes, and sometimes hours. Then you depart, hopefully making it to your destination without breaking down or getting in an accident.

Within Freetown, both taxis (regular cars) and poda podas run on predefined routes as the are shared taxis. It costs 1,000 Le one way for a taxi, a little bit more than for a poda poda because the city taxis only seat 5. The problem for visitors is that you don’t know what the routes are. So to find out the best way to get from one place to another, you need to ask around. Often getting to your destination involves taking taxis on more than one route and can be a little confusing.

In Freetown you can also charter a taxi to drive you around for 15,000 Le an hour. Beware of drivers who say they know where you’re going but don’t, and be careful of the condition of the vehicle. Most of the vehicles are in terrible shape, but some are better than others. It’s always wise to check out the car before making a deal with the driver, especially if you’re going outside of Freetown where the roads are not paved. This is a lesson I learned the hard way.

A final word about the roads. From what I know, the only really good paved roads in the country are the highway from Freetown to just past Magburaka (runs through Makeni), from Kenema to Bo, and most of the way from Bo to Freetown (there are small sections of that highway that are currently being improved). On any other road you are going to be dealing with potholes (often more pothole than road) or just dirt roads, which in the rainy season become a mud swamp. Don’t be deceived by distances (“it’s only 100 km it won’t take us long to get there” . . . 5 hours later, we arrived), or by your map, which has roads marked as “primary highway – paved.” Yes, it was paved . . . 20 years ago!

To be honest, if Sierra Leone wants to become a tourist destination, roads and transportation options are one of the major things they are going to have to improve. Right now, travel in this country is definitely not for the faint of heart!

A few transportation related photos:

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