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Sierra Leone: island-hopping in West Africa

There is an instinct inside many of us, a raw natural urge that draws us to the Road. It is a longing for the excitement of the unknown, the freedom that the traveller feels on waking up in a place unfamiliar to him, knowing not where he will find himself tomorrow. It is the sense of liberty that comes with putting yourself in the hands of fate and waiting to see what life throws your way. A land of coups and diamond smugglers, Sierra Leone had always caught my imagination and now that peace and stability have rendered it once again accessible to visitors, it seemed like the perfect antidote to the tedium and monotony of University life.  And so it was that one dreary summer’s afternoon I found myself in Heathrow airport, boarding a plane, with my girlfriend Tash and two close friends, Fred and Anwen, to Freetown.

The first memory I have of Sierra Leone was the wall of hot, humid air that swept through the cabin the instant the doors were opened. To we English, unaccustomed to such things, West Africa in the rainy season feels very much like stepping into a sauna. In fact, the country holds the dubious distinction of having the hottest minimum temperature in Africa, something with which we were to become all too familiar over the next three weeks. Getting from the airport to the city involved taking a ferry across the Great Scarcies River which proved to be an experience in its own right, watching Freetown gradually take shape, dwarfed by the mountains that form its backdrop.

River No.2 beach

However we decided to save the capital for another day and instead made our way south towards the unoriginally named River No.2 Beach. The road was badly pot-holed but very scenic, the blood-red earth contrasting fiercely with the greens of the roadside jungle from which a cacophony of birdsong and cicadas filtered through the open car windows, reminding us just how very far we had come from the drab motorways of southern England. The car broke down a few kilometres before our destination but we got there eventually to be greeted with a spectacular view over the deserted beach. It truly was a stunning sight to behold, the crystalline waters of the Guma River snaking their way over soft white sand before melting away into the warm Atlantic rollers. The picture was completed by the lush mountains that cascade right down to the shore behind the beach in a riot of tropical vegetation.

The next day we arranged a trip up the river and spent a happy few hours cruising upstream in a small dugout canoe gliding past mangrove swamps and through patches of dense jungle. At one point I saw a large shoal of flying fish, floating gracefully over the turquoise waters. On the way back the heavens opened and in seconds we were soaked to the skin by torrential rain like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The power of the storms in Sierra Leone is quite astounding. They seem to have an almost human presence, an immense but benign energy breathing life into the surroundings.

Leaving River No.2 Beach behind, we now set off into the unknown, our destination – the Turtle Islands, a small archipelago lying off the south of the country. Getting to the islands involved a multi-legged journey over land and sea that took the entire day. By lunchtime we had reached the small port town of Tombo, situated on the southern end of the Freetown Peninsula where we were greeted by a chaotic mêlée of Sierra Leoneans all shouting names of islands we had never heard of. We eventually met a radio DJ from Peninsula FM who spoke English and directed us to a small rickety wooden boat, bobbing away in the waves, just off shore. Before boarding we visited the market and stocked up on food and water supplies to last us a few days as we had learned that there were no shops of any kind on the island. As it turned out, neither were there roads, vehicles, electricity or any of the other things we depend upon so heavily in the western world.

The bot from Tombo

The boat was weighed down by hundreds of locals, squeezed in so tightly that movement of any kind was rendered impossible. The hull of the boat was filled with cargo and the passengers perched on top, clinging on for dear life. It was a scene of absolute chaos and our misgivings were heightened when, just before setting sail, we witnessed an ominous altercation on the dock as an irate man who I presume must have been an official of some kind let loose a tirade, telling the captain the boat was overcrowded and that it was madness to leave without life jackets on board. This man has since been vindicated, as a couple of months later one of those boats on exactly the same route capsized, tragically killing over 200 people.

The journey was uncomfortable, perched on top of a sack of corn in the intense heat but we made it in one piece to Plantain Island, the half-way point. At one point the boat had started letting in water, much to the alarm of the passengers but we were kept afloat by the ingenuity of one of the local women who tore a strip of material from her skirt and used it to plug the hole.

Welcome on plantain Island

On arrival at Plantain Island we were immediately swarmed by curious youngsters. The sight of a ‘toubab’ or European is extremely rare here and our presence aroused much interest amongst the islanders. They created a circle around us, pressing in on all sides to get a better look. We soon moved on, travelling on a much smaller boat this time, and eventually pulled into the Turtle Islands as the sun was setting.

The view of the islands over the water gives an impression of the quintessential tropical paradise, ringed by pristine beaches of glistening silver sand backed by towering stands of coconut palms. As the boat drew nearer small villages built from mud and palm fronds emerged from the shade of the trees. The water here was very shallow and full of sandbanks, on which we frequently ran aground but through a process of trial and error we eventually found a passage to Sei Island where we hoped to be able to pitch camp. Having dropped us off with our bags on a small stretch of beach in front of a village the boat pulled away and we were left wondering how to proceed. This decision was made for us however as a delegation of the island’s inhabitants approached and summoned us to the centre of the village where the Chief awaited us. Luckily there was a man on the island who spoke English, and through him we explained that we were travellers and hoped to be able to camp on his island, a proposal which, thankfully, was received well. He appointed an enigmatic character by the name of Mohammed Dick to be our guide and we were then led a few minutes’ walk along the shore to a secluded sandy cove.

Exhausted from the day’s travel we pitched the tents and fell asleep in seconds only to be woken a few hours later by water flooding in. We struggled to keep everything dry but later found Tash’s phone beneath two inches of water. We soon realised that the tents were no match for the equatorial thunderstorms but thankfully the Chief was kind enough to let us move into a small semi-built shack which kept us dry for the next few days.

The islanders were as curious to us as we were to them. For hours they would stand in front of our tents watching us intently. They barely blinked, never moved or talked – just stared. We felt like circus performers, our every move scrutinized at length by the crowd. On the rest of the island however, a sense of isolation reigned. Completely untouched by modern technology, the place seemed a world away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. In fact the pace of life here was practically stationary.This lethargic atmosphere seemed to have got the better of some of the locals, one of whom was convinced he was Bob Marley and as far as we could ascertain just spent his days wandering round and round the island. We got to know a few of the villagers a little better on the second morning when Tash and I joined them fishing in a small stream by the beach. We used our mosquito net, stretched across the current and caught a handful of small silver fish which we then fried in palm oil for lunch. A welcome change from rice and biscuits.

Sei Island

Before leaving we made a complete circuit of the island, making our way right around the deserted coast. It was low tide and we could see the sandbars stretching out into the distance, sometimes connecting islands miles apart. The islanders wade out over these banks fishing and collecting clams. We met a group of young children with buckets full of shellfish. It was strange to imagine their lives, in which education seems to play no part whatsoever. Instead, as soon as they are capable they are sent off to contribute to the island’s food supply. The other side of the island turned out to be even more striking than our side. At one end there was a large mangrove forest and beyond it an unbroken beach of snow-white sand covering most of the coast. It was refreshing to behold this scene of such paradisiacal beauty completely hidden from the world, exactly as it would have been thousands of years ago. Blessed by their inaccessibility the Islands seem to exist in a parallel universe, in which the concepts of urbanization, mass-tourism and even time itself have no place.

After a few days, with our food and water supplies dwindling, we reluctantly decided that it was time to move on. We had been struggling to find a way back as there is no regular boat service to the mainland but eventually we struck a deal with the only man on the island who owned a seaworthy vessel. The journey lasted over ten hours, gliding slowly over the shallow water. It was perfectly calm and for hours not a ripple broke the glassy surface. The sea was full of life and every now and then swirls and waves would indicate the presence of unknown creatures, startled by the oncoming boat. Strange silvery eel-like fish bounced away over the surface of the water like skimming stones and at one point I even saw a baby turtle, no bigger than the size of my palm, swimming alongside us.

Onlookers, Tombo

By the time the boat pulled into the port at Gbangbatok it was well after midnight and we were slightly apprehensive about wandering the dark streets of this unknown town in search of accommodation for the night. On arrival we were greeted by a local police officer who interrogated us thoroughly about our ‘mission’ in Sierra Leone. People here are highly suspicious of our intentions in the country, unused to the concept of tourism they assume us to be involved in the diamond trade or the murky world of West African diplomacy. Eventually we convinced him that we had come to his country for no other reason than simply to travel and he proceeded to escort us into the town-centre where we were directed to a small guesthouse.  Our rest was short-lived however as the bus to Bo, our next stop, left at 5am.

Road travel in Sierra Leone is at the same time nerve-racking and highly entertaining. The vehicles themselves, if such a word can be used to describe them, are generally compiled from an assortment of pieces of scrap metal, welded together in a haphazard manner by a local mechanic.  They tend to be driven with complete disregard for the safety of those inside and outside of the bus, whizzing through villages at breakneck speed, swerving wildly to avoid potholes, livestock and pedestrians. This particular bus broke down three times during the relatively short drive to Bo! That said, I could never tire of the endless images of rural life one observes on such journeys. Life in Africa is for the most part lived outside and so on passing through any given village you get a fascinating, albeit brief, glimpse into the lives of those who inhabit it.

We had not eaten for almost 24 hours after our food supplies ran out on leaving the Turtle Islands and we arrived exhausted and worn out from all the travelling. Bo, however, proved to be the perfect place to recuperate. Seemingly made for the weary traveller, it has comfortable hotels (where a double room with a bathroom, a fan and even TV costs a mere $6 per night), banks, internet cafés and possibly one of the most delicious eateries in West Africa in Sab’s Restaurant which I highly recommend to anyone who finds themselves in the vicinity. We were fortunate enough to be befriended by the son of the Lebanese family who owns the place. Mohammed was a connoisseur of the art of shisha smoking and entertained us for the night with shisha tips and stories of his life in Sierra Leone. The people in Bo were extremely friendly and made us feel quite at home. Even local celebrities like the Sierra Leonean tennis champion (for the last 7 years!) seemed keen to make our acquaintance – he approached us over lunch one day and challenged us to a game. Thus we spent a happy few days in the town, recuperating from our three days of rice and biscuits on the Turtle Islands, before heading off to the Tiwai Island nature reserve. This island, located on the Moa River in an area of forest to the south of Bo, is famed for being one of the last remaining habitats of the West African Pygmy Hippo as well as having one of the highest densities of primates to be found anywhere in the world.

Dirt road from Bo to Cambama

After stocking up on food and water in Bo we hired a taxi to the village of Cambama from where we were told it would be possible to cross over to the island. The journey there was beautiful, cruising down a perfectly straight dirt road deeper and deeper into the jungle. Cambama is the end of the road – quite literally, the track just peters out among a small cluster of mud huts. We met a couple of the villagers, one of whom introduced himself as the boatman and escorted us down a steep track through the trees to the water’s edge where a small boat with an outboard engine lay tethered to a post. The river was in flood, a chocolate brown torrent snaking its way off into the forest. We motored downriver for a few minutes and then, rounding a bend, the island came into sight, cloaked in unfeasibly dense jungle spilling over into the river. Palms and creepers everywhere dangled down into the current forming a solid wall of vegetation. We pulled in to a small wooden jetty in a backwater under the overhanging branches and were led by the boatman to a camp consisting of four or five large tents in a clearing.

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