Freetown, Baby!

Bintumani by jc2010sl
January 7, 2011, 6:25 pm
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No trip in Sierra Leone is without some kind of minor crisis. Scaling the country’s highest peak – Mount Bintumani at 1947m – should have thrown up more crises than most. My only slight surprise was that we were inconvenienced so early in our trip. Driving to the base of the mountain, or at least as far as the road allows, we slipped off the narrow “surface” and into the rudimentary gutters dug by the road side.

After an hour and half’s of strategising (done mainly by our driver), and road re-construction (which we had a hand in) we were back on our way. Having given ourselves a tight 2 ½ days for the climb we traipsed through the dark to Sinekoro, the village at the foot of the mountain, ready for the assault on the peak. The morning brought negotiations with the village chief for access to the mountain and provision of porters to carry food for the climb. Despite their unorthodox interpretation of “backpacking” our guides totally put us to shame; racing up the steep jungle hills while we stopped for air and water in the oppressive heat.

Our camp for the night provided a short relief, but as soon as we’d re-filled our bottles with water from the stream and deposited our bags, we headed for the top. As we passed the cloud line rainforest coverage gave way to a Savanah landscape and tall, nodding elephant grass.

Several hours, and several false summits later, we reached the peak proper. Cartoon-like it may have been with its steep sides, rocky crags, and near symmetry, but it was nevertheless a stern test after climbing 1000 meters and walking for 7 hours.

As we started cooking up our dinner for the evening it became apparent that our guides had brought nothing with them except a sack of rice. I’m not sure what they made of the tinned tomatoes and beans we shared with them – being unaccustomed to anything not drenched in palm oil – but they ate without complaint. As we discovered on the way down, they hadn’t brought anything to carry water in either, so they borrowed some plastic bottles to fill between streams. On seeing us drop our purification tablets into our water bottles they got quite insistent on having some as well, despite having no idea what they were. Saying we were nearly out cut no ice, so I resorted to telling them they were white man tablets, made to keep you white. Nobody really wanted any tables after that.

Being so much quicker than us meant our guides were able to race ahead and stop when they pleased. As we discovered later, this sometimes meant relieving some of the bags of their weight permanently (!), but it was mostly for innocent purposes like taking a dip in the stream.

Suitably inspired, I had my first wash for 3 days in the icy water and felt vaguely human again. The sensation lasted barely 30 minutes before I was as sticky as before, but at least with a clearer memory of what it meant to be clean.

We spent our final night camping in the school field in Momoria village. Two of our party wandered off in search of water in the direction pointed out by the villagers, taking one of our drivers with them to help. As they stood in the fetid water filling bottles with brown sludge, one of them turned to our driver. “Musa?” “Yes boss”, came the inevitable reply. “Would you drink this water?” a slight pause, as he continued to fill the bottle, followed by “No boss.” It turned out from the school teacher they had been sent into a malarial swamp… Water procured from a nearby stream, we cooked up our final dinner on our “Three firestones”; an essential configuration everywhere in Salone.

Writing in his diary of his six week walk across Sierra Leone and Liberia, Graham Greene wrote “I wanted to go straight from the African hut with the rats running down the wall at night to some luxury hotel in Europe and enjoy the contrast. In fact, civilisation was always broken to one slowly.” The improvement in Sierra Leonean roads since Greene’s time mean that now one can wake up in a tent in the remotest corner of the country and be in a warm bath and an air-conditioned bedroom by evening. Never have my aching limbs been in sorer need of it.



Serra Lyoa by jc2010sl
May 23, 2010, 9:16 pm
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It was the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Cintra who gave Sierra Leone it’s name. Passing the peninsular hills on his ship he called them the “Serra Lyoa”, or Lion Mountains. No one’s sure exactly why, but suppositions abound. One theory is that the tropical thunderstorms sound like a lion roaring, another is that the mountains resemble a lion lying down. Most prosaically, some claim that in de Cintra’s day lions roamed the coastline.

These days at least, lions are pretty uncommon. In the last decade there has been 1 recorded lion in Sierra Leone, far from the coast near the Guinean border. It terrorised a village until a hunter tracked and killed it, earning himself national fame and an audience with the then President.

As a national symbol though, the lion is ubiquitous. All over town, patriotic Salones have small statues on their walls and over their gates. Here are some that I pass on my way to work:
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