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Sierra Leone’s Moa River, on foot and by dugout canoe

Canoeing along the Moa River, Sierra LeoneOne minute I was seated comfortably, or as far as is possible when squeezed into a local flat bottomed dugout canoe with an inch of grimy water in the bottom, and the next the boat had disappeared and I found myself being swept away down the river by increasingly strong rapids deep in the Sierra Leonean jungle. The river in question was the Moa River. My explanation for finding myself in this situation was that I had joined a team of 7 individuals who were seeking to navigate the river from the border with Guinea to the coast, a journey of almost 200km. We planned to complete this epic adventure through the use of local fisherman’s boats, which provided a mixed experience as alluded to above, and on foot.

Sierra Leone has an international reputation for brutality, child soldiers and illegally mined diamonds and this is an image which was enshrined in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hollywood blockbuster ‘Blood Diamond’. Our route would see us cross the region which had been at the epicentre of the country’s decade long civil war and an area which had come to be heavily dominated by the RUF rebels working alluvial diamond mining sites. It was therefore with the mixed emotions of intrigue and trepidation that I shouldered my pack and set off down a thin jungle path a few kilometres from the Guinea border in search of the Moa River, our conduit through the country.

Sierra Leone, childrenInitially I found it difficult to reconcile the accounts of brutality, which I had read and heard about, with the friendliness and obvious peacefulness of the communities which we passed through. However the reality of the war was made real to us by our guide, Abu, who, one evening by the fire, told us of how he had returned from exile to rescue his mother during the war. The pair then spent weeks on end hiding in the jungle, living on unripe pineapples, as they desperately sought the safety of neighbouring Guinea. Whilst the thought that we were trekking down the same rough jungle paths along which child soldiers had once brought fear and destruction was disquieting, the unmistakable progress which had been made since the war was uplifting.

Village market, Sierra LeoneThis mood of optimism was heightened by the extraordinary welcome which we received on countless occasions as we emerged from the jungle or river into remote villages. In many cases these villages hadn’t seen a foreign face for decades although one chief did tell us that one of our brothers had ‘passed through recently’ – it later emerged he was referring to 1992! Once initial suspicions about our motives were laid to rest we set about the routine of paying our respects to the village chief before negotiating for more food, generally country rice, yams, fish and fruit, or a nearby space in the jungle to hang our hammocks.

Indeed setting up camp often seemed to become an activity for the entire village to become involved with; some helping to clear the ground, whilst others filled our water containers from the river before watching with some bemusement as we dropped our chlorine tablets into the brimming bags. After we had eaten and were seated around the fire the ukulele, which was carried throughout the expedition by our very own wandering minstrel ‘T’, proved a constant source of amusement and fascination as we attempted to make our own contribution to Sierra Leone’s lively music scene. Prior to leaving each village we would be given advice and information on our route before setting off down thin jungle paths, often guided by barefooted kids who ran back and forth along the path taking their job of guiding very seriously.

Trekking in Sierra LeoneThe seriousness of correct navigation through these jungle paths were ominously impressed upon us after we were informed by a village chief that we could not proceed along our intended route because a secret bush society initiation was taking place. Sierra Leone is famous for its spirituality and the presence of these bush societies is an all pervading fact of everyday life for the vast majority of the population. It was made very clear that we were forbidden to venture anyway near the area where the initiation was taking place and we were just grateful that we had been allowed to continue at all.

A clear highlight on our journey was visiting one of the rivers many islands – Tiwai Island. Tiwai Island comprises the Eastern tip of what is left of the Gola Rainforest and as a protected wildlife sanctuary has one of the highest concentration and diversity of primates in the world. Some of them are rare and endangered species like the colobus monkeys (black & white, red and olive) and the Diana monkey. We heard their screeches from the comfort of the tents which they have on the island – seriously developed tourist infrastructure by the standards of hinterland tourism in the country.

Hammocks on the beach, Sierra LeoneRelaxing on the stunning beaches of the western peninsular provided the ideal place to reflect on the experience of being part of the first group of travellers to journey through down the Moa River – undoubtedly a great privilege as we were able to gain an unparalleled insight into ways of life that have remained largely unaltered for centuries. We were also able to encounter a Sierra Leone which was free from the shackles of its international reputation for child soldiers and mindless violence. Sierra Leone desperately needs more people to go and discover this for themselves.

The expedition was organised by Secret Compass Expeditions ( who specialise in running pioneering expeditions to remote parts of the world. To date these have included climbing in Iraq and the first coast to coast trek across Madagascar. There expeditions are open to all with a good level of fitness and a sense of adventure.

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