The Road to Labe

10 hours, one dugout canoe, one motorbike taxi, three shared taxis. I have arrived - at my starting point.

I am now in Diaboue, Senegal and my destination is Labe in the lush highlands of Guinea a beautiful place but one not easy to get to. On Wednesdays, market day in Diaboue, there is a sept-place that goes directly to Labe. The sept-place is the public transport of choice in West Africa sagging seven-passenger Peugot station wagons that leave when full. The seat you get depends on when you buy your ticket.

Anticipating a long wait but knowing from prior experience that I must get there early enough to avoid the back row, I arrive at 8.00am and am told I am the fourth customer. Only three to go I think. Maybe a couple of hours wait. Silly me! Eight hours later we finally depart and I understand why three seats took so long to fill. Seven does not mean seven in Guinea seven means however many people you can physically force into the car or on the roof. When we leave we are 15 pretzeled adults, three scrunched children, towering piles of luggage and some live poultry dangling, handbag-like, from a woman's wrist. Yes - this in a car designed for eight.

One advantage of waiting eight hours for your taxi to leave is that you get the chance to meet your fellow travellers. Bashir, a strutting 20 year old Guinean kid in a black and orange tracksuit, promptly becomes my self-appointed companion and protector. He urges peanuts and oranges on me, speaking in rapid fire African French of which I understand about 5 per cent, and calls his grandmother in southern Guinea so that she can speak with me.

As it turns out Bashir was the first to buy his ticket and so has dibs on the coveted seat next to the driver. Given that we need to cram three passengers into this space meant for one, it is not quite as coveted as anticipated. However, Bashir argues loudly that I must sit in front with him and I am eternally grateful. Jammed between my protector and a bony Senegalese man who straddles the gear stick, my upper body is completely immobilized but at least I have a view and can flutter my legs a little.

A few kilometers out of Diaboue, we swerve right at an unsignposted turn and jolt onto a dirt track; this, it appears, is the transnational highway to Guinea. We drive (a euphemism for seeking the road hidden in the potholes) and drive some more. We wake yawning guards at rusting border shacks and drive some more; we navigate four police checks in 10 km and still we drive some more. We stop, have passenger mutinies about the overcrowding that takes an hour to resolve (it satisfies me that even the locals are protesting) and drive some more.

Finally I doze, but am startled awake by the forgotten sense of human movement. It is dark, 3.30am according to my watch, and I can dimly make out a handful of ramshackle stick huts. Bewildered, I watch the other passengers stumble out, lie down in the dirt next to the car and promptly go to sleep. Once again Bashir comes to my rescue, finds me a thin woven mat to protect me from the dirt and gives me the blanket he had brought for himself. He waves my feeble protests away and goes to sleep and shiver elsewhere (it is actually quite cold). Again, I am eternally grateful.

As dawn approaches, I understand the delay. We are at a river and must wait for a creaking manual pulley ferry to collect us. A few hours later, 20 hours after we set off, we arrive in Labe. Luckily, this bustling provincial town with its clamourous market and cool mototaxi guys immediately charms me and this inhumane journey is all worthwhile.

N Germany

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