SIERRA LEONE, A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
Story and photos by David Utekin
HighOnAdventure.com December 8, 2009
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 but 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 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 but Tash immediately recognised the symptoms of malaria and was struck by the impossibility of getting to a hospital any time soon. She did not sleep a wink all night. She tells me the worst thing was my colour. 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 1am 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 it transpired that 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 for 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 in like sardines in a bus for over two hours before even leaving the bus stop in Bo. Eventually it 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 town is the centre 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 on from the end of the war - burnt out buildings and walls riddled with bullet holes. Despite this the town is back on its feet and 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 these were hard to find – on all sides, even in the town itself you can observe the locals sifting through endless pans of gravel.
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 colours, sounds and smells that characterises 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 aplenty but it was a with distinct sadness that I boarded the ferry to the airport, watching Freetown fade into the haze behind us.
Christopher McCandless, immortalised in the film Into the Wild, once wrote that 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 once more 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.
|More of David Utekin's photos are available at Travel-Images.com|