Thursday, June 14, 2012

When the clouds come rolling in...

Last week I traveled to Sanniquellie for two reasons. One was to conduct a workshop for the health workers on using data for making decisions. The other reason was to explore why contraceptive use is very low in Nimba County. I will write about those two parts later, I have to talk about the drive to Sanniquellie.

The better part of the road - with few potholes and washed away at its seams
I like driving up country, or as the Liberians call it, "the bush". The drive from Monrovia to Sanniquellie is quite the feat, because of the road. I haven't been to Sanniquellie in a month, so I wasn't aware of the condition of roads. The terrain changes rapidly in the rainy season, because it doesn't just rain here. The rain in Liberia is unlike any other. It is powerful enough to wash away everything in its path. To give you an idea, Liberia received the third largest rainfall in the world, for its land area. Monrovia is the city with the highest rainfall in the world. Since the rainy season started a month ago, I wasn't quite sure what lay ahead in front of us. Well, not much lay ahead. The dirt road that has washed away in most areas leaving huge potholes the size of craters, and rocks. Part of the road is paved. the part from Monrovia to Gbarnga is not bad, the part from Gbarnga to Ganta is the worst, and from Ganta to Sanniquellie is just track. Half of our journey is spent clinging on to our dear lives on the hand railing in our Land Cruiser. I do not recommend anyone with a bad back doing this trip.

However, not all is bad. The scenery is beautiful. That's what happens when you drive through the last remaining rain forest in West Africa. Lush tropical forest lines either sides of the road. Huge rubber trees stand majestically among the underbrush. The Liberian rain forest is also the world's only known habitat for pygmy hippos. I haven't seen one in the wild so far, because they are rare, shy, and highly endangered.

Since it is the rainy season, and these are no ordinary rains, you always are caught in a downpour. The sight of a rain storm rolling in always enthralls me. The colors - green luscious forest, red dirt road, the blue sky, and black clouds rolling in with immense speed - is quite the sight to see. Although I am no professional photographer, I tried to capture some of the intense beauty with my simple yet trusty Canon Powershot.

The clouds roll in...

What you see on the right is a small hamlet, three huts bordered by plantain and coconut trees. I asked our driver to stop in the middle of the track so I can marvel at the beauty of nature. I started taking pictures and a man came out of one of the huts to see what we were doing. After some more picture taking, we resumed our bumpy journey.

The dark sky and darker road

As we pass through more forest and start driving through the heavy downpour, we are greeted with various sounds from the forest, people running to their huts to avoid the rain, and, my most favorite of all, the smell of  earth when it receives rain. After about an hour of driving, we finally get past the rain, and start watching for the huge puddles on the road. It is a good thing we have the trust Land Cruiser, you cannot do this drive with many SUVs.

One of the things you have to be cautious of this rain is the huge puddles that form in the road. It is difficult to  avoid and gauge the depth of these puddles, which leads to many accidents. These are no ordinary puddles, they can swallow half of your car easily. We witnessed one such accident. A semi-truck that got stuck in one such puddle because it was too deep. The semi kinda nosedived in to one puddle while avoiding another puddle. Luckily there were no casualties, just a semi stuck on the road. This does not bode well for us, because you cannot take a diversion.


Now, you may wonder why there is a big semi in the middle of the rain forest? It is because one of the largest iron ore mines in Africa is located near the Liberia-Guinea border, in a town called Yekepa. You have to pass through the rain forest to reach Yekepa. Arcelor Mittal has a huge mining operation going on in Yekepa, and this particular truck was delivering some supplies to the mine.

We got out of our SUV, walked around to see if there is any clearing on the side of the road and decided to take a chance with off-roading. There is no way we are staying stuck in the forest behind this semi, while it is getting dark. Look at my boss and our driver surveying the terrain.

My boss and driver surveying the terrain before deciding if we can off-road

My boss drove Land Cruisers in the rain forests of Cameroon 30 years ago, while volunteering as a physician in the jungles of Cameroon and Congo. He has worked extensively in Africa and he has a great knowledge of the terrain. With his and our trusty driver's skills, we were able to get out of this road block. Look at our intern waiting patiently and watching the scene.

Heather waits patiently while enjoying the scenery

That's our trusty Land Cruiser, by the way. Almost all international donors and NGOs working in Liberia have white vehicles. The rhino horn looking thing in front of the car is for our satellite phone, if we get stuck in the jungle and need the American government to come get us :) After some maneuvering, we were able to get on the road and resume our journey. We got out to see the accident from the front and it looked like this...

The accident from the front

Well, that crash could have easily been us. But we have skilled drivers, so I rarely get worried about driving through the rain forest. Just look at that lush greenery on either sides of the road. Stunning!

We go on with our journey and arrived at Sanniquellie safely. Finished work in two days and came back to Monrovia. I bought a big bag of palm nuts for Isaiah on the way back home. He is one happy bird!


  1. I love the photos - that is quite a truck!

  2. aww.. wish i could go out to the bush as well. rather, i'm stuck behind a desk in monrovia pushing pen against paper (or tapping on a keyboard, if u insist on being that literal). ah! so near, yet so far...

    1. Perhaps you can teach people in the bush to use a computer? That will give you a reason to travel to the bush :)
      I like your blog. Nice pictures!