“Looks like we have a free week in the middle of January”
Filippo was consulting his diary from the deck of the solar tower in Tribewanted’s new eco-tourism village in Sierra Leone.
“Fancy a road trip to Liberia?”
There was no need to answer that question. I had been living in a tent on the beach for 5 months helping establish the project and was
itching to see the country beyond the Freetown peninsula. Both thumbs went up and the plans to drive into Sierra Leone’s provinces, boat to its islands and head over the border to Liberia began.
I’d just started reading war-correspondent turned travel writer, Tim Butcher’s, account of his 2009 trek tracing the footsteps of Graham Greene’s epic journey across the two countries, and although we only had six days –and therefore could not attempt anything nearly as ambitious – I was excited to explore whether you could realistically cross the SL in a short time and still get a strong sense of the places and their people.
In ‘Chasing the Devil’ Butcher paints a picture of a nation still struggling to recover from its brutal civil war in the 1990s despite a
huge influx of foreign aid. My microcosm perspective of ‘Sweet Salone’ in the last few months at John Obey had been less harsh than this: I had found a peaceful, beautiful and so-far safe land with, despite its horrific recent history, an increasing political optimism with innovative development projects in education, entrepreneurship and tourism. True Freetown was chaotic, but life in the village by the sea was pretty good. Whether this would be the same ‘up-line’ as they say in Krio when you head to the country, I was about to discover.
Day one: Freetown to Nyangai Island
Packed full with tents, water, fuel, six guys, three iphones, 5 million leones, a lot tinned sardines and some pinapples, our trusty 250,000ks-on-the-clock-and-going-strong Toyota pick-up, cruised at 100ks an hour out of town, through a bustling Waterloo (poda-poda not eurostar here) and north-east on the only good road off the peninsula.
The smooth-tarmac didn’t last long as we soon turned directly east and began bumping along the dusty clay-coloured dirt roads and tracks that connect the vast majority of Sierra Leone’s villages and towns.
Five hours later we bounce into the small and port of Shenge. Known for its heritage of devil worshippers we didn’t want to hang around too long. Guzzling down a plate of beans, oysters and rice for the princely sum of 50p a plate we began negotiating a price for a boat to take us out to the Turtle Islands and up-river to re-meet our truck two days later.
“3 million, because you will use 90 gallons of fuel.”
90 gallons I thought – calculating roughly from my experiences of
boats, tides and currents island hopping in Fiji – that will get us
halfway to Monoriva!
We managed to chop a million from the cost but two days later we had
learnt two things – one we were right about the 90 gallons, we used 50 and slightly unbelievably we actually got re-imbursed for the difference. And two, travel by boat here – in one without shade or seats – is both glorious and expensive.
The harmatan – the time of year when the Saharan sands rain down across Western Africa creating hazy skies and cool nights – hung on the ocean like a mid-winter mist. Our sunset journey across a flat sea towards the turtle islands was navigated blind. At one point the captain steered us towards a loan fishermen in a small dug-out wooden canoe to ask for directions. As if he were a floating sign-post the man simply raised his paddle and pointed in a different direction. Our boat shouted out its thanks as if this was how all marine navigation has ever been done and ‘turned left’. But sure enough an hour later a scratching of palms and huts on what looked like no more than a sandbank emerged out of the dusk. It was one of the most serene and surreal end of a days travel I’ve experienced – children, men and women greeting us like lost friends as walked along their white sand in moon-shadow-palms to camp under the stars. I couldn’t wait to see this place in daylight.
Day two: Nyangai Island to Bonthe
All I can say is google earth: Turtle Islands. Waking on that sandbank
under my tent fly-sheet, I rolled over on one side to see one of the
world’s finer sites. A perfect sweep of the whitest sand, dotted with
sloping palms and cluttered with thatched huts. The dawn lighting up
the set of this truly spectacular place.
Nyangai is one of the dozen or so tiny habited Turtle Islands of Sierra Leone. Home to a surprising 500 people, its chief Mustafa Kong,
who we had visited the night before to pay our respects and kola (money for stay), told me from his hammock that people stay here
despite the poor (and salty) water supply, a lack of island-grown foods (coconuts, that’s it) and zero medical facilities because
fishing is good. Despite appearances it is, of course, far from paradise. One side of the island is peppered with human faeces,
compost toilets don’t exist here. Twenty years ago these people were able to grow cassava and other small crops in the forest, which now has retreated to beach scrub beneath the palms at one end of the kilometer long island. “The sea is coming in slowly to take us,” an exact echo from many people I’ve met in Fiji.
Soon our tents were surrounded by what seemed to be ALL the children on the island. Tourists don’t often come here anymore, they used to and the locals sound like they want them to come again – but our short visit caused plenty of interest on an otherwise silent Sunday.
I was ushered around the southern tip to discover two sets of goalposts under a foot of water. 20 minutes later and the outgoing tide left the pitch playable and we soon were practicing free-kicks on the sand.
“What’s your name?” I asked the small boy who smashed a twenty-yard
ball barefoot (that left my feet stinging in pain from striking it) into the back of the fishing net.
Premier League marketing really does have no boundaries.
Deciding my feet now stung a little too much for it to continue being fun I began jogging away from the pitch and along the sandbanks out to sea. I can safely say it is one of the best runs I’ve ever done. Curving back and forth in an endless s-shape the sand and low tide
allowed me to feel like I was on a running-machine made of water, skimming weightless along tracks opening up in front of me, the
harmattan morning mirage giving a sense of speeding along the curvature of the earth.
Day three: Bonthe to Tiwai Island
Our dream-like experience of the island was tempered by a faulty carborator in the boat engine, a rising sun and little shade.
Engine fixed we had traveled up the wide Shebro river arriving a fews hours later in Bonthe. Once a main port in Sierra Leone before the Province of Freedom was created during the abolition of slavery, this sleep town is one of those places that clearly has lived through different times.
After a night of camping at the rather plush Bonthe Holiday Village –even dining in a restaurant with cold beer – we take a walk around the town. Our friend and guide, Daniel MaCauley, suddenly tells us that his father lives here and he hasn’t been home for 30 years. We follow Daniel past the forlorn churches, telephone boxes, water hydrants, and even airport complete with rusting Cessna – a grown boys climbing frame. The colonial relecks of this town show what happens when its ‘masters’ have departed – trees grow through broken stained-glass windows, goats sleep in archways that wouldn’t be out of place in Durham or Windsor.
Daniel’s father explains that even though Bonthe is not the centre of Salone anymore but the new leadership in the country is bringing good development, a brand new hospital is slowly being built just up the end of the path from his home. Bonthe certainly gets my vote over Freetown.
We continue on in our trusty vessel up the narrowing river, past mud flats, rice paddys, giant mangroves and plenty of bird-life before meeting our vehicle at Yaggo village where the policeman is extremely welcoming. Our drive into the provinces now begins in earnest, and is
much more picturesque than I imagined. Villages appear better kept than, constructed and organized than those on the Freetown peninsula – perhaps a reflection of the capital regions transitory population post-war.
At Mattru Jong, where the infamous boy soldier Ishmael Beah describes secretly witnessing the brutal killing of his family by the RUF, we cross the river on a man-pulled (including us) rickety cargo ferry. As has often been said it is so hard to imagine such brutality in the same place where a few years later the quiet business of these villagers carry on. Beneath the surface there is a huge recovery process only just beginning of course.
After a long dusty drive we reach an incomplete bridge at dusk. Daniel jumps out of the truck, “No problem, the river isn’t far from here”. We wearily pull on our packs on, grab a box of food and head up and over the hill and into the night.
Twenty minutes later we reach a village, negotiate over some things I can’t really recall and head down another hill to the edge of a river. Back on (another) boat we drift out under the moon down-stream where a few minutes later we pull into what looks like a tiny gap between two giant bamboo plants. A short hike into the jungle and we stumble into a clearly and campsite. Shower, bread, mug of wine (yes we packed well), and I’m overly ready for sleep.
Day four: Tiwai Island to Robertsport, Liberia
A bit like the Ngoragora Crator in Tanzania, Tiwai Island is a natural zoo formed by a break in the Moa river. The monkeys and chimps that live here don’t leave because they can’t. So what seemed like too short sleep, I’m woken by Diani and Red Colobus monkies screeching through the canopy directly above me. Talk about a lazy safari – I didn’t even need to leave my tent!
We take a one-hour trek around the island with a local guide trying to avoid the impressively persistent spider-grass (grass not a spider), which sticks to your leg hair and pulls aggressively. Ouch!
The real stars of Tiwai aren’t the monkies or birds, however, but the trees! What I understood from the guide to be aptly named ‘Monstrousity Africanus’ towered above us at almost every-turn, its roots snaking out above grown like gargantuan mangled railway sleepers finally disappearing back into the earth in the distant jungle undergrowth.
From Tiwai we drove south and started to cross the border into Liberia. My experience of land border crossings in Africa are to expect three things: it will take longer than you think, it will cost more than you think and you can never have all the right paper-work . All three came true and more as we tried to leave Sierra Leone and enter Liberia. Even with the correct visas in our passports, the return border costs still rocketed to a further $250 between us, at least half of which was how shall I say, sadly well beyond any kind of justifiable bureaucracy.
But at least there was Commander Ada. On the Liberian side at immigration we met a larger than life albino woman with braids who, in her dessert military gear and legs astride, was clearly the boss of this border post.
The first thing I noticed about the country we were entering was the roads – fine tarmac roads. Gloriously smooth, tarmac. Thank you Liberia!
Day five & six: Robersport and back to Freetown
‘One of the best surfing spots in West Africa.’ That’s what the guide books and magazine articles had said about Robertsport, Liberia. We weren’t surfers, but I was inquisitive to see if it lived up to the hype.
Like Bonthe, the town had seen better days, we visited JJ Roberts’ – the first President of Liberia – ‘palace’ at night a deserted shell of a building over-looking the lake and bay. We sat, rather naively perhaps, on the ledge of the balcony that would once have been the Presidents view-point of his nation. The lonestar of Liberia carved in stone above our heads revealing the patriotic and historic links to the United States whose slaves once began great social experiment here.
As for the surf – well this was not quite a scene from point break, both in terms of the surfers; we body-surfed badly and the surf; the shallow break barrels were more like dumpers. Liberia’s self-proclaimed second best surfer, Benjamin MaCumba, later told me the swell would come next week. Bondi it may not be, but charming people (less aggressive than SL), clean gorgeous beaches, fine seafood and fascinating history makes it a compelling place. We had Nana’s Lodge beach camp to ourselves midweek, at weekends we’re told it’s busy with expats and even hosts weddings!
The long journey back to Freetown started badly with more ‘official’ costs at the border before discovering that we had bought ‘dirty diesel’ in Liberia meaning the engine spluttered and struggled for the next two days, so that we limped back into Freetown in twice the time
it should have taken before we could find a proper mechanic to clean the engine thoroughly. The only way to avoid this kind of debilitating problem is to take your own diesel. Despite this the journey, now beginning to feel like a mini-odyssey was still hugely enjoyable, as camaraderie of being on the road thickens with the dust and
challenges. We stopped over for our last night on the verge of the Gola Forest, hiring a fleet of okadas – motorbikes – to take us from
the mechanics yard to the bush. Our brief entry into the West African motorcycle diaries delivered us to another beautiful village, where after a negotiation and payment to the chief we hiked back into the jungle, beneath the bamboos to camp again round the fire and under the stars of this awesome African adventure.
Would I recommend it?
Absolutely. But maybe not going into Liberia for such a short time. The border crossing corruption and costs were a big headache for a quick visit. A trip through Eastern and Southern Sierra Leone with your own tents and transport is guarenteed adventure.
Want to go?
If you wanted to budget for an overland and sea camping trip like this with private transport, a driver, a guide and border crossing fees – plan on $100 a day. Tribewanted can organize trips within Sierra Leone.
For an introduction to life on the beach in Sierra Leone >
sierraleone.tribewanted.com (295GBP a week)
For travel to Freetown from London, BMI fly 4 times a week >