From Makeni we headed South towards the beaches of the Freetown peninsula. After our previous adventures the road was a thing of great beauty, a perfect tarmac conveyer belt that sped us effortlessly towards our final destination, without so much as a pot hole in sight. A large sign declared that it had been built with funding from the EU Commission. As we revelled in the novelty of going 80km per hour, I wondered if the whole catastrophic shit show that is Brexit could perhaps have been avoided if the UK was covered in similar signs, proclaiming everything that is funded by the EU?
Sierra Leone to most people conjures up images of child soldiers, ‘blood diamonds’ and more recently Ebola, but this tiny country has so many other things it ought to be famous for, including having some of the best beaches in all of Africa. We ended up spending 3 weeks at Bureh beach (about a 40 minute drive from Freetown) whilst waiting for our Nigerian visa to be issued. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful beach, when we first arrived in was nearing dusk and the blue grey mountains stretched into the horizon, reaching down as far as the sea. The beach was a curve of golden sand, dotted with black boulders and fringed with dense green jungle. At night the sea was full of glowing plankton, so that when we swam it seemed as if we were shooting sparks from our fingers and toes.
We camped at the community run surf club. What was lacking in customer service (the guys spent most of the day smoking weed and surfing and rarely found the time to refill the water tanks, clean the toilets, or replenish the loo roll) was made up for in character. An excellent documentary was made about the surf club “Big Wata” (“the Ocean” in Krio), we were lucky enough to be there when the Dutch director returned for a screening on the beach.
We had been at the surf club for around 3 days when some of the guys invited me to eat with them (Leon and Jim were in town at the time). They had cooked a huge communal plate of coconut rice and it was absolutely delicious. It was about an hour later, by which time fortunately Leon and Jim had returned, that I suddenly began to feel extremely weird. Everything started spinning and when I turned my head to the side it felt like I had left it behind, my whole body felt strangely disconnected, like I was about to loose control of all my limbs. By the time I tried to tell Leon that something was very wrong, I could barely speak. The only thing I could think was that it reminded me a lot of how I felt once as a teenager after eating hash brownies. On that occasion I made the mistake of vastly overestimating the quantity of hash needed and vastly underestimating the tastiness of the brownies, resulting in my friend having to take me home to my mum, convinced that my brain was swelling up and the world was about to come to an end. I had never repeated the experience; deciding then that it was clearly not for me me, but I could still remember it vividly. I managed to tell Leon to ask the guys if they had put anything in the food, although time seemed to be moving really slowly and even this one small sentence felt like it took an age to say. Somewhere in the edge of my consciousness I could hear their slightly confused response, they were ‘absolutely sure that they probably didn’t put anything in the food….’ they think.
It is generally a bit disconcerting to start tripping your tits off for no apparent reason, but when this happens in Africa it opens up a whole range of terrifying possibilities. If there was probably nothing in the food, then why was I feeling like this? I didn’t know much about malaria but I did know it could come on very suddenly. But would this account for the hallucinations? And if it wasn’t malaria then what the hell was it? Could it be rabies? Had I somehow been bitten by a venomous snake or spider without realising it? By this time I felt like I was barely clinging on to lucidity and so we piled into Jim’s Subaru and sped to the nearest health clinic. Had I not been in such a terrible state, I would probably have found the visit to the health clinic a fascinating and eye opening experience. As it was, I spent most of the time lying on the bed, trying my best not to act as weird as I felt. I was given an instant malaria test, which was negative, but the nurse explained that as I was taking anti malarials it may not be reliable and I would need to have a blood slide test (meaning someone would look at my blood through a microscope to see if the parasite was present). This second test she told me was positive. I was dispatched with some emergency malaria treatment and told that if I didn’t feel better within a few days to come back. Whilst we were there a guy was carried in by two men, he had obviously been in a motorbike accident and it did not look good. He was dumped unceremoniously on a bench, his head lolling at a strange angle. Nobody seemed in the slightest bit worried about the man, the (only) nurse in the clinic calmly continued attending to me having apparently decided that either he was beyond help or should wait his turn in the queue.
On the drive back I was already starting to feel better, perhaps I thought the emergency medication was kicking in. When an hour later I became insatiably hungry and demolished an entire packet of digestives, I figured I must either be the quickest person ever to recover from malaria or had just been really, really stoned. The next day any remaining mystery was solved when one of the guys sheepishly admitted that the rice had been seasoned with some of ‘Sheriff’s special sauce.’
We had known before leaving home that one of the biggest challenges would be getting our visa for Nigeria. For most countries it is possible to get a visa on the border, or at the embassy in the proceeding country, but Nigeria generally insists tourists must apply in their home country (something we could not do since the visa would have expired by the time we got there). We had been preparing to go through the time consuming, expensive and highly corrupt process of applying for a ‘business visa on arrival’ when we heard that other travellers (with the assistance of a few fake flight and hotel bookings) had succeeded in getting their visa in Freetown. In the end our biggest problem was actually getting the application submitted. Sierra Leone for all its many charms is not a country in which to try and get things done. Everything is a challenge. The simplest thing like finding an internet cafe that has an internet connection, or a print shop that has a working printer can take all day. Worst of all was trying to find an ATM that had not run out of money (the biggest note is 10,000 Leones which is the equivalent of less than 1 Euro). Fortunately, considering how many days we spent trying to work our way through a to do list one might expect to take less than an hour, Freetown is a nice city. It was founded by freed slaves (hence the name) and you can still see many Southern American style clapboard houses on stilts.
On Bureh it quickly became apparent that Blanco was no ordinary kitten. Although not more than a couple of months old, he thought nothing of facing down the stray dogs that ruled the beach and by the end of the 3 weeks most knew to give him a wide berth.
One of the beach dogs was heavily pregnant and about a week after we arrived Jim came back to his tent and saw that he had left the door unzipped. He peered inside and found her lying on his mattress accompanied by two newborn puppies. A few hours later, two more had followed. I brought her a tin of luncheon meat and a bowl of water which she wolfed down before collapsing, exhausted but content. Jim was somewhat less happy as he resigned himself to sleeping in his car for the next few days.
We met a whole host of other overlanders at the beach who soon became friends; Fabian, a Swiss guy in a Nissan patrol, Timmy and Deedee in their converted Belgium military truck and Martin and Nicole in the ‘Disco’ (their Landrover Discovery). All were heading to South Africa but (with the exception of Fabian) had decided to skip, Nigeria, the Congos and the worst of the rainy season and ship to Namibia. Our friend Chi, whose motto had always been ‘just deal with it’ had also decided to ‘just deal with’ the rain by heading back to China for 3 months. As we gamely waited for our Nigerian visa amidst the gathering storm clouds and increasingly torrential downpours of rain, I did occasionally wonder, were we crazy to continue?
But after finally collecting our Nigerian visas, continue we did, heading to Tiwai Island, a rainforest national park, near to the border of Liberia. It was a fantastic place, one of the few primary rainforests left in West Africa and we were lucky enough to see 5 different species of primates, the diana monkey, spot nose monkey, red colabus, black and white colabus and sooty mangabey.
We stayed at a community run campsite, which provided a interesting (and occasionally hilarious) insight into village life. Contrary to what you might think, village life was far from quiet and there was always some drama or other going on. A missing pineapple which had been left near our tent sparked hours of intense investigations; Had it been stolen? Had we eaten it without realising it? Had it even existed in the first place?? (I am considering writing a Agatha Christie style detective story entitled ‘The Mystery of the Missing Pineapple’ based on this experience). Another afternoon some of the guys were complaining to us that the Chief had forbidden their usual Sunday night disco because it always caused too much trouble. Evidently someone was able to able to talk him around as we were kept awake into the early hours by the speaker systems blasting out what sounded from a distance like hard core gabba. The following morning we couldn’t help thinking perhaps the Chief had been right when one of our guides turned up with his arm covered in a thick poultice of leaves and strapped up in a sling. Apparently his wife had seen him dancing with his niece and had gotten so jealous she had beaten him with the enormous wooden stick used for pounding maise into foo foo! Our guide didn’t seem to bothered, adopting an attitude which suggested it was all par for the course and the party had been well worth a broken arm!!