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Monday, 22 March 2010

A Sierra Leone Adventure - Page 2

Written by David Utekin
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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 a traveler feels when waking up in a place unfamiliar to him, not knowing 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 has returned once again it is accessible to visitors. It seemed like the perfect antidote to the tedium and monotony of university life. On one dreary summer afternoon I found myself in Heathrow airport boarding a plane to Freetown with my girlfriend, Tash, and two close friends, Fred and Anwen.


The journey was uncomfortable, perched on top of a sack of corn in the intense heat, but we made it in one piece to the half-way point, Plantain Island. 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. Upon arrival at Plantain Island we were immediately swarmed by A Sierra Leone Adventure, Adventures in Sierra Leone, travel Sierra Leone, travel Freetown, River No.2 Beach, travel west africa, Turtle Islands, Great Scarcies River, Guma River, Plantain Island, Sei Island, Sab’s Restaurant, Bo, West African Pygmy Hippo, Kono, Tommy Trenchardcurious 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, traveling 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. However, this decision was made for us, as a delegation of the island’s inhabitants approached and summoned us to the center of the village where the Chief awaited us. Luckily there was a man on the island A Sierra Leone Adventure, Adventures in Sierra Leone, travel Sierra Leone, travel Freetown, River No.2 Beach, travel west africa, Turtle Islands, Great Scarcies River, Guma River, Plantain Island, Sei Island, Sab’s Restaurant, Bo, West African Pygmy Hippo, Kono, Tommy Trenchardwho spoke English, and through him we explained that we were travelers 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 our 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 realized 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 about us as we were about 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 A Sierra Leone Adventure, Adventures in Sierra Leone, travel Sierra Leone, travel Freetown, River No.2 Beach, travel west africa, Turtle Islands, Great Scarcies River, Guma River, Plantain Island, Sei Island, Sab’s Restaurant, Bo, West African Pygmy Hippo, Kono, Tommy Trenchardcrowd. On the rest of the island, 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 gotten 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 welcomed change from rice and biscuits.


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 A Sierra Leone Adventure, Adventures in Sierra Leone, travel Sierra Leone, travel Freetown, River No.2 Beach, travel west africa, Turtle Islands, Great Scarcies River, Guma River, Plantain Island, Sei Island, Sab’s Restaurant, Bo, West African Pygmy Hippo, Kono, Tommy Trenchardshellfish. 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.


A Sierra Leone Adventure, Adventures in Sierra Leone, travel Sierra Leone, travel Freetown, River No.2 Beach, travel west africa, Turtle Islands, Great Scarcies River, Guma River, Plantain Island, Sei Island, Sab’s Restaurant, Bo, West African Pygmy Hippo, Kono, Tommy Trenchard

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.



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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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