Backstory: Entering Liberia's national park
War-torn Liberia is ready for tourists to visit its rain forest – but are tourists ready for this uncut gem?
SAPO NATIONAL PARK, LIBERIA — 'Hold still," says my wife, plucking a large insect from my beard as we stopped by a small beach along the Sinoe River minutes after a downpour blasted through the lush canopy of trees. "It was camouflaged in there."
That's when it struck me just how far away from civilization we really were. To get here – deep in one of the last remaining bits of virgin West African rain forest – we had taken the daily one-and-a-half-hour UN peacekeeping helicopter flight from Liberia's war-ravaged capital, Monrovia, to the remote coastal town of Greenville. Then we took a jarring, three-hour truck ride through a seemingly endless series of fender-deep mud puddles to the Sapo National Park headquarters. From there, it was a four-hour hike through dense jungle, including a river crossing on a tiny, makeshift raft.
"These are the rapids," proclaims Blamah Goll, the jovial chief park warden, laughing as he tells us how a UN official once stripped to his skivvies and frolicked in the currents.
Few outsiders have been to this park. It's simply too hard to get to, even for the most intrepid traveler. Indeed, the country itself – ravaged by a brutal, 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 – is hardly a tourist destination. And Sapo is no Yellowstone. There's no infrastructure whatsoever.
Our group of four – two city-slicker Liberians from Monrovia, my wife who shot photos for the trip, and I – stayed in the warden's house, a small cement structure recently built thanks to money from the US Agency for International Development. But there's no visitor housing, no facilities.
The "main entrance" to the park is two hours away from the warden's house, accessible only on foot, and it is in no way distinguishable from any other stretch of jungle along the river. Once inside the park, there are no trails. You have to rely completely on the park staff and the local guides – stern-faced ex-hunters hired so they'd stop poaching the endangered animals in the park for "bush meat."
No one is allowed in the park unless accompanied by Liberia's Forestry Development Authority. That rule doesn't seem to mean much to the ragtag, drug-fueled group of entrepreneurs illegally mining gold from the park's nether regions. But the park is 700 square miles, and we're nowhere near the rowdy miners and their "Iraq" and "Afghanistan" camps.
We want to catch a glimpse of a pygmy hippo, forest elephant, some chimpanzees, or maybe a giant pangolin – a scaly anteater. But unlike a safari in the grasslands of Kenya or South Africa, where lions, elephants, and giraffes walk right up to Jeeps full of tourists, it's tough to see these creatures unless you camp deep in the park. So the guides weren't surprised that we came up empty in that regard during our one-day visit.
But, climbing through monstrous vines and stepping over slippery roots, we did see many large birds such as the great blue turaco and the hornbill, which, they told us, calls on the hour. And the foliage was Edenesque. Among the most impressive bits of greenery were: the dahomey tree, with huge wall-like vertical roots; the fogara tree, covered in thick, sharp spikes; a tree with six-inch-thick cylindrical curving vines that you can slice open and drink water from; and the "candle tree" which has a white, waxlike sap. ("If you light it on fire, it will burn all night," says Mr. Goll.)
The highlight, though, had to be the black cobra sighting. One of the stern-faced local guides almost hit the snake with his machete as he was clearing brush. As it darted away, he and the other guide broke into exuberant cheers and wide smiles. The encounter had the opposite effect on the guests, however.
Once back from the long day's hike, we pulled off our park-supplied knee-high boots and our soggy socks and went to get cleaned up. To our great surprise, local village women brought over buckets of water they'd just heated over wood fires. Given that this was the first hot bucket shower I'd had in Liberia, it didn't matter that it smelled like I was cleaning myself with liquid smoke. It felt luxurious. The smoke theme was continued that night as we sipped on sweet, hot tea made from the same water.
The next morning, all the park staff and villagers came to say goodbye to the four of us. They said they hope to be able to set up minimal infrastructure to lure intrepid tourists in the future.
"For people to spend the money it takes to come here, it has to be worth their while," says Scholastica Doe, deputy minister of tourism, in an interview in Monrovia. "They have to have a minimum of comfort."
I couldn't help but picture cabins on the edge of the park, small bridges over the river, maintained trails, guided bird walks, maybe a lodge serving jazzed up versions of local cuisine. One of the guests from Monrovia suggested a basic spa for tourists tired from a long day's hike.
But that's a long way off. The wardens get paid a dollar a day and the country's tourism budget last year was a meager $3,000.
"The potential [for tourism in Liberia] is so great," says Ms. Doe, who adds that Sapo National Park will be promoted – along with the country's pristine beaches and history as a home for freed, educated American slaves – in any future itinerary for tourists if this war-torn country can rebuild itself. "There are lots of challenges, lots of disappointment, but I believe in, one, trailblazing; and, two, overcoming the odds. My grandma used to say: 'With these two hands and God, anything is possible.' And I believe it."
This spirit is also evident in the park staff, who wear their khaki uniforms with great pride, and were tapping our brains to find out just exactly what amenities even the most rugged tourist would need. Yes, more money than they'd ever heard of would have to be spent to build some cabins so that tourists could have a bit of privacy, and, yes, tourists really would need bridges and trails.
On our way out, we heard chimps just outside the warden's house. We ran outside, but couldn't lay eyes on them. It was as if to tease us into coming back for a longer stay in this stunningly beautiful, if raw, location. Perhaps one day it will all be easier.