When I was young and my older sisters were travelling the world they would send home letters of their adventures. Each letter was read aloud and the images it conjured up of these far off places lived in my imagination and thoughts for years. I was thinking of these letters and the images they inspired as Kat and I headed off just before dawn on motorbikes (okada) for the Freetown government bus station.
At 5:30am the streets were more deserted than I had expected. The sun was not yet rising, and the only light came from the head beam of the okada as it wove around potholes and navigated speed bumps. The quiet of the streets felt precious and rare. The okada drove down through the lower part of the city, towards the water. If I had not been in a taxi the previous day that had taken this same route I may have been nervous, as the streets are so dark and as sweet as my driver seemed I didn’t want to be a naive fool. We drove up to Congo Cross, veered to the left down side streets to avoid construction, then around the stadium, and as we started to enter downtown we veered left again down a steep hill and through one of Freetown’s slums where life was stirring only slightly more than in our neighbourhood of Murry Town. Then we crossed the base of the business centre on Lightfood Boston St, just one street up from the coast and the government wharfs. The ride was perhaps fifteen minutes and all in the darkness, but knowing the turns my driver would make and seeing the map of the city in my mind calmed my often-excitable imagination. One week in I was already comfortable here.
The bus station was another pro-Sierra Lone experience with helpful strangers, and the bus manager making sure the guys loading our bags on the bus did not ask us for money. The boy selling water who left with our too big note did eventually find us again with the proper change. It is nice to be able to shrug and say “I am sure he will be back with change, and if not it is not a big loss.” I still check my bags and make sure the zippers are pulled shut, but if I didn’t I am also pretty positive some older woman would come up to me and let me know my bag was open and give a mini lecture on keeping my valuables safe.
So the journey out of Freetown and towards Bo was uneventful. The sunrise was beautiful through the morning mist, and the countryside was wild. This is one the most striking things about Sierra Leone. Of all the land we saw in our journeys apart from Freetown, greater Freetown and Bo (the two larges cities), only 10% or so was under cultivation or otherwise harnessed for human uses. Sierra Leone is jungle country and it is marvellous! I look at the thick jungle forest and think how does one ever begin to penetrate it? ‘Machete required’. The other thing I noticed was the number of villages supported by Plan International. The Freetown-Bo highway felt like the Plan strip. Very few other NGOs were working in this area, it was very much dominated by Plan. The signboards mentioned the project, sector area, beneficiary population, and length of project but it was hard to see these details as we sped past.
In Bo we found a poda poda (mini bus) headed to Tiwai. We bulked at the price as the distance did not seem so far…but it certainly took a long time. Our poda poda was loaded beyond capacity. People, dry goods, water canisters, and more…items were piled on the roof a good 4-5 feet high, and the floor under the seats …well ever inch was used. There were probably 27+ people in a mini bus that was built for perhaps 14. The floor (what little we had access to) became burning hot metal with the rotation of the parts (not a car person) below. When we passed through puddles steam rose through the holes in the floor. At one point we were all required to exit the bus and walk about 500 meters while the mini bus navigated a particularly bad stretch of water filled potholes the size of garden fish ponds. It was certainly an adventure…a five hour adventure on metal benches. While we had our doubts about the actually making it to our destination (Kat thought the axel was going to crumble, I thought the roof was going to cave in) we did. Our poda poda did break down once, about an hour delay (axel-tire issues), during which time Kat and I discovered the most lovely all natural toilet I have ever seen – a floor of dark black shells of some nut surrounded by some tall green plant (sorry I can’t be more specific)…as spa-like as a natural outhouse could be. Toilets are something of note and a conversation topic for travellers…you get to see it all.
Tiwai- an island forest reserve in the Moa river. There were small communities of people on Tiwai until the 1980s, then as our guide informed us a white man said that if the island was reserved for wildlife then the white people will come visit…income generation, education, employment, and animal conservation – this is Tiwai today. Our early morning guided walk through this 12-sq-km island jungle revealed six of the 11 different species of primates jumping around the canopy – the Red Columbus, Black and White Columbus, Diana monkey, Spotted Nose monkey, ….Macak, and another one whose name I can’t remember. Apparently Tiwai island is one of the best places in the world to view primates. We also saw two types of hornbills and many other birds. Our canoe trip around the island did not reveal the shy pigmy hippos but it was peaceful and felt completely ‘wild’. Nature has the upper hand here, as in most of Sierra Leone. It reminded me of Hippo Pools in Zimbabwe, but perhaps a bit more rustic and less developed. Kat and I tented and ate groundnut (peanut) soup for three of our four meals on the island.
The return trip from Tiwai to Freetown had an even earlier morning start. We arose at 4:30am and at 5am the boat arrived to take us to the mainland where two okada’s were be waiting to transport us to the poda poda stop in Portoru where we would be catching the first transport (6am) back to Bo. The boat ride was undertaken in darkness, the blackness of the trees only slightly blacker than the night sky, our driver was skilful and found the correct patch of mud on the mainland bank without the aid of any light. Our okada ride was just as magical. The air was cool and the ride fast but meditative. Can those two co-exist? Early mornings are a special time, and I was more than happy to have roused myself out of bed for this ride through the countryside. In Portoru we choose the same poda poda that brought us there. As my father says ‘the devil you know, is better than the devil you don’t.’ Again we broke down once, the front tires/axel this time. Another distinction in this journey besides the sunrise and are choice front seats (100x more comfortable than the metal benches) were the chickens among passengers, and as we discovered just before arriving in Bo…poached monkeys and some small type of antelope. As much as I don’t like to see monkeys being hunted I was struck by the fact that this sight could not be in any way more disturbing than the poultry, pig, or cattle farms around the world where animals are treated as biomass for human consumption. I was not too sad for the monkeys, they probably had a good life and every part will be used (food, witch doctors remedies, skin for any number of things). I was a bit surprised by my reaction, but I am not a vegetarian so I cannot get all righteous and upset about the sight of a few poached animals, it would be hypocritical.
After a short time in Bo (which included a failed bank run and a rush back to the poda poda to retrieve our mobile left in the car charger – success!) we headed to Freetown on yet another poda poda. In Freetown we collected more cash and our friend Cindy and headed to the famed beaches. Tokeh was first on the list.
Beaches – Tokeh and River No. 2
What can I tell you about Tokeh? After a 1.5 hour okada ride down not-really-existent-roads one comes to small, undeveloped, but lively Tokeh village and beach. The beach is made up of fine white sands and the surrounding mountains disappear into the sea. As Kat mused -maybe this is what Hawaii is like. Stunning! Our accommodation was very basic, no electricity, a bed, a mossy net, and a reed hut right on the beach. The culinary highlight was the oysters! One dozen for $2.50!!! (Don’t worry Dad, I ordered them both days, can’t pass that up.)The sunset was in pastels, the beers were cold, the ocean was calm, the rains did not last, a bonfire was lit for us, and we had the whole beach to ourselves…well we did share it with the small local population. We played, floated, and just hung out in the ocean for hours…this did eventually cause the most sever case of heatstroke I have ever experienced but that was yet to come. Tokeh was pretty much perfect. Sure mats on our wooden sun beds and bug spray could have improved things but really, it was pretty fabulous just the way it was.
From Tokeh we went to River No. 2, one beach closer to Freetown, Cindy continued on to Freetown as she had to work the next day. We had wanted to get to the Banana Islands but Kat and I could not justify the expense with Senegal still to come in our travels. River No. 2 is the expat weekend hangout. We arrived on a Sunday night and saw the last of the 4x4 crowd finish their beers and pay their overpriced tabs before heading back to town. It was overpriced. Still cheaper than the transport to and from Banana Islands, but overpriced for what was offered. Kat and I shrugged, we had no choice it was late and we had to stay. The beach was beautiful. Kat read to me until the sun set (we are reading The Empathic Civilization) and then we negotiated a dinner from a waiter who said there was no food left after the weekend. Boiled eggs and cuscus with a spicy tomato sauce did materialize and it was tasty. That night the heatstroke hit. Both Kat and I were ill and running to the toilet in turns, but only I was vomiting. The next day was a right-off, I was bed-bound until we were well enough to climb on okada’s and take the journey back to Freetown. I did managed one walk down the beach as it was a cloudy day and the beach is beautiful…the overpriced expat establishment does not destroy the natural beauty.
There is so much more I want to say, I feel I have not done it justice, not been descriptive enough, I want to share everything, share how this country makes me feel…but it is getting late and we leave tomorrow for Senegal.
Sierra Leone is a special place. It has, in two short weeks, found a spot in my heart. If I were offered a job here in the future I certainly hope I could accept it.
Kat and I are worried about our wallets, but we are also excited to be off to Senegal and The Gambia. It will be go go go for the ten days we are there. I will do my best to update the blog.