A trek in one of the most remote and unspoiled rainforests in West Africa takes careful planning. Lisa and I made a plan to spend three days hiking beneath the canopy of the towering tropical rainforest in Sapo National Park. The park is located in south central Liberia, approximately 60 kilometers inland from Greenville. Greenville is the largest nearby city (Buchanan, at 197 kilometers from the park, is larger but farther away). From Mamba Point, Monrovia, the distance to the park is close to 330 kilometers. After Buchanan, the road is laterite and clay of varying degrees of maintenance. Near Buchanan it is possible to gain speeds of 50 kilometers per hour between villages. By the time you reach Rivercess county, the rolling hills and narrow bridges degrade the roadway and speeds will be reduced even in good weather. Low washes tend to soften and erode the surface, creating treacherous potholes. Villages may have numerous speed bumps to slow traffic. Overall, the roads are in decent condition for March, though isolated rainstorms can pool water in the lower, swampier sections of the roadway. All bets are off during the rainy season, and the park is generally not taking visitors during the worst months of the rainy season. There are checkpoints along the way, and the policemen seem friendly enough to direct your travels.
Before leaving Monrovia, it is necessary to fill out proper forms and pay fees to the Forestry Development Authority. They are located heading towards Kakata from Redlight (Somalia drive) a few kilometers past the Coca Cola bottling plant. The turn is one intersection past Weintown Drive. Turn left onto FDA Drive (look for a concrete arch with the words “Forestry Development Authority”) and proceed along a pot-holed track leading to Mount Barclay. Forestry Development Authority is 1.5 kilometers from the arch to the top of the hill. Contact Jerry 07764 62564, or 08864 62564, or his secretary Peaches 08865 38592, or 07709 17233, to make an appointment. They should produce the paperwork including the fees schedule (prices vary from fee schedule, in some cases) and the indemnity clause for you to sign and pay. Fees are assessed differently for Nationals and non-Nationals, and generally are less by 50% for Nationals than what is listed here for non-Nationals. Fees include park entry, per person of USD $10. Hiking is $5 per person, per day. Vehicle fee to access the park headquarters is $25 per vehicle. Note that you cannot drive to, or into the park. It is approximately 3 kilometers of walking from park headquarters office following a footpath to reach the river bordering the park. The fee to photograph (commercially) in the park is $200 for up to three days, though it is unclear if personal photography is fee-based. Be prepared to discuss this issue. Obtain a receipt for your payments, to present when you arrive at park headquarters.
Our plan was to spend a night in Greenville. We made a reservation with Moses Banks at 08867 00812 to stay at the Mississippi Guest House, just after the Total Gas Station on Tubman Street entering Greenville. Our clean room had air conditioning, running water, electricity 7pm to 7am, for $50. The travel time from Monrovia was eight hours. We had dinner (fish and rice) at the Forum Restaurant downtown, as the other restaurant, the Mississippi Blues Pub, was without power and not cooking. It is wise to fill your vehicle at Total before leaving Greenville, for there is not a proper gas station between Greenville and the park. A full tank should take you from Greenville to the park and back to Monrovia. Be aware that phone service will be limited to nonexistent as you approach the park. Lonestar was the choice of the guides. We had no Cellcom signal.
Once you reach the park, there are more fees. Passing through the nearest village, Jalay Town, we were welcomed by a traditional celebration of dance and singing, and several small donations were encouraged before we were allowed to continue through the village. Someone will direct you to the park headquarters. When you arrive, your guides will be chosen, and camping fees assessed. We were assigned three guides, two to accompany us on our forest treks, and one to maintain our camp. Guides are paid $5 per day, and camping is $5 per night. In addition, you will be expected to provide not only your own food, but the food for the guides. It is possible to give the guides money ($10 to $20, total) to purchase their own food, as rice, fish and peppers may be available in Jalay Town. If provisions aren’t available, you may have to drive to the next village, or, planning ahead, arrive prepared. Having rice and dried fish, local peppers, and something like “arome” seasoning with you when you arrive will save time and scrambling for supply.
Because of the challenging logistics of getting in and out of Sapo Park, a day-trip is not very practical and will not allow enough time for a forest experience. Planning a minimum stay of two nights will give you a better experience.
The guides will help you carry your provisions, but may not have a spare backpack, so if you can provide that, it will be useful. Leaving your car at park headquarters, begin your walk back through Jalay Town, stopping to meet the village chief and elders. They impart a blessing (also for a donation) for your journey. It is approximately a one-hour walk to the river, then a canoe will take you across to the park. The canoe is $10 roundtrip. Once across the river, you begin your trek into the forest and a thirty to forty-minute walk will bring you to a clearing in the forest, Vera Camp.
Vera Camp has a wooden house built several years ago as a research facility and is now used as an elevated tent platform. There are two interior rooms for sleeping. Having a tent to keep out mosquitos and other critters, and a camping mattress will make the hard wood floors slightly more comfortable. There are no beds, and no running water at the site. Camping gear like headlamps, candles, eating utensils, toilet paper, and rope will be useful. Cooking is done over a campfire, and we were able to have water from a nearby stream heated for soup and hot drinks, and canned foods (or pasta noodles, rice, etc.) warmed in a pot over the fire. Simplicity in food preparation is key, as there is one fire, limited cooking pots, and most of the day will be spent away from camp. Bathing is done in a nearby stream and is crucial at the end of a hot, sweaty day of trekking in the heat and humidity of the jungle. We brought bottled water, a minimum 1.5 liters per person, per day, and relied on boiled water from the nearby stream for cooking and hot drinks. A short walk into the forest from camp is a simple pit-drop toilet. Bring your own toiletries.
We had few problems with insects, and saw very few mosquitos. There are likely to be some bees and biting flies, depending on the season. There may be a few ticks in the forest, and it would therefore be wise to spray your shoes and pants with an insect repellent. Here and there you may encounter great ant migrations crossing the trails. Walking into one of these ant carpets will divert their migration onto your legs. You will know the true meaning of ants in your pants. Paying attention to the guides, and to where you put your feet, is always a good idea.
Our guides were very knowledgable about animals and trees in the forest. Observing wildlife will depend on whether animals are in the vicinity, and also will depend on how much noise you make in the forest. Talking and clomping through dry leaves will inform the animals that you are coming and they will hide from you. Whispering, walking quietly, and stopping often to listen to the forest sounds will help to identify if there are animals present. Wearing proper clothing (blacks, browns, dark greens) is advised to blend in to the environment. If you discuss your hopes and expectations with the guides before entering the forest, they will be most helpful to give you a meaningful experience. We were able to observe Diana monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, a mystery duiker, zebra duikers, and squirrels. We heard galagos and tree hyraxes in the night. There are many birds to hear and see, including turacos, hornbills, owls, eagles, and flocks of small birds feeding through the trees.
If you expect to see chimpanzees, pygmy hippos, elephants, and leopards, you will likely be disappointed. Though these animals live in the park, years of hunting, mining, and other encroachments have taught them to stay out of sight. The guides are skilled in recognizing the tracks of many of the animals in the park, and during our treks, we discovered tracks of pygmy hippopotami and elephants. And of course, there is always the possibility of a surprise appearance. Keep your eyes and ears open!
Walking beneath ancient towering trees, listening to the chatter of monkeys in the canopy, the smell of lush vegetation, watching giant hornbills sail overhead, waking to the trill of galagos in the night, or the crowing of turacos at sunrise, these are forest experiences that are waiting for you at Sapo National Park. Bring all of your senses.