From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



My plan was to have just two full days to explore Monrovia.  In fact, I will have just one – which is today – because everything will close down tomorrow for the New Year’s Day holiday.   Fortunately, I was able to make the most of the day, and I am confident that I have seen all that there is to see in Monrovia, which if you believe my guidebook, is not much at all.

I have brought two guidebooks with me for travel in West Africa.  One does not include any information whatsoever on Liberia in its 1274 pages, and the other has less than half a page on ‘Sights and Activities’ in Monrovia, most of which are listed as being either closed or dangerous.

Heeding the advice both of the guidebook and a good friend who worked in Liberia some years ago, I hired a car and driver (named Augustine) for a couple of hours to accompany me.  It was a good move, as it enabled me to cover most of the territory of urban Monrovia as well as providing me with some good local knowledge.

We headed out from the hotel at about 9:30 am and took the short drive to the city centre.  The first stop on my itinerary was the Masonic Temple.  Arguably Monrovia’s grandest building, the Masonic Temple was a symbol of Americo-Liberian control of Liberia before the 1980 coup d’état because so many powerful politicians and government officials were Masons.  The building was vandalised after the coup when the Masonic Order was banned, and it is still in a state of disrepair, even though it is once again being used as a Masonic Lodge.  It is difficult to photograph this magnificent building because it is right across the road from the high-security fortress-like US Embassy, so my one photograph had to be taken from our moving car.

Just up the hill from the Masonic Temple, set atop the highest point in Monrovia, was my second stop, the abandoned Ducor Palace Hotel.  Built in 1959 as the Intercontinental Hotel, the Ducor Palace was one of Africa’s very few five-star hotels for several decades.  When Liberia’s political situation destabilised, the hotel was closed in 1989, just before the second coup.  Then, as the First Civil War escalated, the building endured heavy damage from shellfire, and when the fighting finished, the wrecked building was looted and subsequently settled by squatters.  In 2007, the squatters were evicted and an agreement was signed with the Libyan Government (in 2008) to renovate the hotel.  With the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, the deal seems to be off and the hotel remains abandoned, destroyed and completely devoid of fittings and finishes.

When we arrived, we walked past a young boy kicking around a completely deflated soccer ball and were met by the security guards who were apparently there to prevent vandalism and theft (of what, I ask myself).  They informed us that entry was not possible, and that photography was also prohibited.  However, after a short discussion (initiated by the security guard) on ‘the African way of doing things’, Augustine and I were accompanied on a tour of the hotel, including a photo-frenzied walk up to the top floor for the 5-star views across the city of Monrovia.  Looking from the top of the tallest building at the highest peak in Monrovia afforded spectacular views across the city, including West Point, one of Monrovia’s most densely settled shanty suburbs (see the panoramic photo at the end of today’s diary).  I would never have predicted it, but my visit to the bombed out remains of the hotel turned out to be the highlight of my day.

My third stop was situated just beyond the driveway leading into the Ducor Palace, and this was the Monument to Joseph Roberts, the first President of Liberia (from 1848 to 1856).  The monument was interesting for the way it portrayed early relations between Americo-Liberians and local tribes, but was otherwise fairly unimpressive.

My fourth stop was the National Museum, located in Monrovia’s main street (and the only street with a central, tree-lined traffic island), Broad Street.  My guidebook listed the museum as Monrovia’s top “sight and activity”, even though it acknowledged its decline as a result of looting during years of conflict.  The ground floor housed what was probably the most impressive array of exhibits, which were wooden masks and fetish objects, most of which looked fairly new (as, I suspect, they were despite the thick layers of dust on them).  The middle floor was less impressive, being an exhibit of about 50 photos of Liberia before the 1980 revolution.  The top floor was less impressive still, being a collection of photocopied photos of various world leaders who have ‘influenced’ Liberia, arranged by country but stuck to the walls at seemingly random angles.  As compensation for the climb to the top floor, the views looking down on to Broad Street were quite good.

My fifth stop was Providence Island.  Located in the middle of the Mesurado River that flows through Monrovia, Providence Island was where the first freed slaves settled when they arrived from the US in the 1820s.  There are no remains of that early settlement, and today the island is a run-down park with some trees and a few shelters, surrounded by water filled with plastic waste.  The island can only be reached on foot by descending a spiral concrete flight of stairs that starts from the mid-point of a traffic bridge across the river.  Today, the gate was locked and the stairs could not be entered, but having seen the fairly dismal landscape from the elevated roadway on the bridge, I can’t say that I was really disappointed.

My sixth and final stop was not really a stop at all, but a very slow drive through the congested but very colourful bustling market area of Waterside.  This is Monrovia’s largest commercial area, and comprises street after street of sidewalk stalls that sell every imaginable type of household good and clothes.  In that context, I thought that the huge number of variety of sink and toilet plungers was both fascinating and a bit alarming.  The colour and the frenzied activity of the markets were fascinating, and it was sobering to think that all the stalls (actually, sheets on the ground with goods laid out on them) are dismantled every evening and reassembled every morning.

By 11:30 am, the heat of the day was becoming intense, so I decided to take a rest indoors and wait until the day cooled down before going out for some walks.  I subsequently took two afternoon walks, one to the city centre to get some photos of the colour and general activity (and buildings with bullet holes), and the other to explore some of the beaches around Mamba Point and buy some water from the supermarket (which will be closed tomorrow).  I found that wandering alone (without a driver) gives more opportunities to meet local people, as I was approached at different times by two fake immigration officials who wanted to fine me for not carrying my passport, a real policeman who wanted to charge me a fictitious photo-taking fee and a depressingly emaciated prostitute whose heavy make-up could not disguise the ghost-like features that explain why AIDS is known as the ‘slimming disease’ in Africa.

On a brighter note, being New Year’s Eve, the hotel put on a special buffet dinner for its guests this evening.  It was certainly a great way to finish the day, and the year 2013 in style!

Day 4 - Monrovia, Liberia


31 December 2013