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Monday, 22 March 2010

A Sierra Leone Adventure

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 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. 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 on its own— watching Freetown gradually take shape, dwarfed by the mountains that form its backdrop.


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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 potholed but very scenic. The blood-red earth contrasted fiercely with the greens of the roadside jungle from which a cacophony of birdsong and cicadas filtered through the open car windows., This reminded us how very far we had come from the drab motorways of southern England. The car broke down a few kilometers before our destination, but we got there eventually and were 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 cascaded right down to the shore behind the beach in a riot of tropical vegetation.


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Leaving River No.2 Beach behind, we now set off into the unknown. Our destination was a small archipelago lying off the south of the country, the Turtle Islands. Getting there involved a multi-legged journey over land and sea that took the entire day. By lunchtime we had reached the small port town of TomboA 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, 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 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.


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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.


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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.





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 were 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 center 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 traveling. Bo, however, proved to be the perfect place to recuperate. Seemingly made for the weary traveler, 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: 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.


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It was around this point that I started feeling somewhat under the weather. During supper I completely lost my appetite and began to feel strangely cold. By around 8pm, a splitting headache had set in so I decided to have an early night and sleep it off. The cold worsened and I began shivering uncontrollably in the warm equatorial night - a strange sort of inner chill completely unaffected by external temperature. At the same time, my own temperature rocketed and sweat began pouring off my body. My head and face felt like they were on fire. As the night went on my breathing became irregular and it felt as if I was inhaling hot steam. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I was unaware of exactly what was happening.



Tash immediately recognized the symptoms of malaria and was struck by the impossibility of getting me to a hospital any time soon. She did not sleep a wink all night; she tells me the worst thing was my color. Apparently it drained from my face once the fever began, leaving me a dull shade of grey. I was having nightmares and hallucinations and would every now and then start babbling incoherently. The headaches had become excruciating and were constant for the next five hours or so until the fever passed. By this point I was completely drained, my body exhausted from trying to fight it.


The next problem was what to do about it, it was one o’ clock in the morning and we had no idea if and when I would suffer another attack. We were completely cut off on the island - Tash’s phone had no reception and we had been told that only the guests stay there during the night. Tash and Anwen went off searching and thankfully managed to find and wake up one of the locals, who, it transpired, had stayed over after a party on the island earlier in the day. Unfortunately with the river in its flooded state the dugout canoe would not be able to make it to the mainland but luckily the man managed to contact his friend on the other side who could bring the motorboat. He arrived to pick us up at about 5am. I never did get to see the Pygmy Hippos. The crossing was eerie in the half-light, the river cloaked in a thick fog illuminated by the moon. Having taken us across to Cambama he hooked us up with his friend who took us by motorbike to Potoru. This ride was extremely uncomfortable - Tash, the driver and myself with our bags all balancing on one small motorbike. I was feeling dazed, weak and exhausted and just wanted to lie down in the dirt and go to sleep.


When we got to Potoru there was not a single car in the entire town, so we went to the island office where the helpful official in charge let me collapse on his bed. I had recuperated a little by the time Tash woke me around 9am. She had managed to arrange a car to take us back to Bo. A few hours later we were back in town and after dropping off our things in a hotel started trying to find a doctor. We asked around and were directed to a small Egyptian-run clinic tucked away in a backstreet. The doctor diagnosed me with Falciparum Malaria, the notorious West-African strain of the disease. He injected me with quinine and a painkiller and gave me several packets of pills to take. When asked what they were his unconvincing reply was, “No problem, no problem, just a little cocktail of my own making”! It seemed to help however and I began to feel better. I was still extremely weak and so we decided to stay on in Bo for a few days while I regained my strength, before moving on to Kono and diamond country.


The journey to Kono once again took all day. We sat packed like sardines in a bus for over two hours before even leaving. Eventually the bus left, only to be stopped five minutes later at a military roadblock where the officers made a point of humiliating the driver, making him kiss their shoes and beg for forgiveness before letting us pass. We never found out what his crime had been. It was hard not to feel sympathy for the poor man as we had also had a couple of bad experiences with the police. On one occasion I had broken my flip-flop, and was heading into town barefoot to get some more, when I was accosted by a bribe-hungry official who informed me that it was a criminal offence not to wear shoes in Sierra Leone! Later that day a different group of ’officials’ accused Fred of being a ‘defaulter’, hinting that a little ‘something-something’ would make the problem go away.




For the last leg of the journey we hired a taxi, only to discover a few miles down the road that the driver was completely inebriated. By the time we neared Kono he had consumed a large amount of some potent locally brewed spirit and his driving had become completely terrifying. On several occasions he was forced to suddenly swerve in order to avoid hitting children playing at the side of the road. At one point he stopped the car and stumbled off to a nearby village, returning with a monkey dangling by the tail. “Very sweet meat” he assured us, much to our revulsion. It transpired that he had fought in the civil war that ravaged the country for much of the nineties and kept pointing out the sites of battles and ambushes along the way.


All in all it was a relief to get to Kono, the center of Sierra Leone’s diamond industry, and for this reason it was also the focal point of much of the violence during the civil war. With both the government and the rebels fighting for control of the diamond fields, the town changed hands a number of times. The reminders of the conflict are all too clear even ten years after the end of the war - burnt out buildings and walls riddled with bullet holes. 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 TrenchardDespite this, the town is back on its feet and the diamond industry continues to dominate the lives of many of its inhabitants. On our first day there, we met a Lebanese diamond dealer who directed us to the mines, not that they were hard to find – everywhere, even in the town itself, you can observe the locals sifting through endless pans of gravel.


On our second day we met JC. Born in Nabibia to French parents he had studied geology at university and now owned a mine a few kilometers outside of Kono. Having met him for only a few minutes he was kind enough to invite us to stay at his camp in the bush where he promised to show us something of the business of diamond mining. The highlight of the night was his pet chimpanzee, Mugabe. Orphaned after his mother was killed and eaten as bushmeat, JC had rescued the youngster and was resolved to bring him up himself. For this reason Mugabe had adopted a set of uncannily human characteristics. 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 TrenchardFor breakfast he would drink coffee with his muesli and we even saw him drinking diet coke from a can. He slept in his own little hut, but on stormy nights would cry outside JC’s door until he was allowed to come inside and share the bed. It was truly fascinating to observe his very human behavior. His feet and hands could easily have been those of a human baby (albeit a rather hairy one!).


JC had an interesting life himself, having worked all over Africa; he had a wealth of information on the continent. He had bought his mine after the end of the conflict and had some gruesome stories to tell of the skeletons he found when clearing the site. The RUF rebels had previously mined the area using slave labor in order to earn enough from the diamonds to perpetuate their fight against the government. At one point he calmly informed us that the man who had just brought us our steaks was a cannibal who had eaten people during the conflict. His teeth were filed into sharp points and JC told us that other employees tended to give him a wide berth. It was here that JC had earned his fortune when, a few years ago, he discovered a diamond worth £57 million.


The next day JC drove us to Freetown. An immensely generous man, he was conducting multi-million dollar deals over the phone and telling businessmen he was too busy to meet with them while instead driving us around the city in search of a hotel.





Freetown was a fascinating place to spend our last few days in the country. It exudes energy and we discovered there were few better ways to pass the time there than simply walking through the busy streets, taking in that intoxicating blend of colors, sounds and smells that characterize urban Africa. When this sensory onslaught became too much, we would head down to the bars and restaurants that line Lumley Beach for a Star Beer and a session on the shisha pipes – a legacy of several generations of Lebanese families that settled in this part of West Africa.



Our time in Sierra Leone had passed in a flash. I couldn’t help feeling that we had barely even scratched the surface of this magical country. There had been ups and downs 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 Trenchardaplenty but it was with a distinct sadness that we boarded the ferry to the airport, watching Freetown fade into the haze behind us.


Christopher McCandless, immortalized in the film ‘Into the Wild,’ once wrote that, “The very core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun”. This seems especially poignant in Sierra Leone, a land dominated by the bizarre and the unexpected, and for a group of restless students it provided a much needed escape from routine and security. Now that it is stable and the bands of AK toting teenagers are a thing of the past, this may just be the perfect time to visit this sparkling gem of a country.


©David Utekin

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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