Into the Jungle – The best of ports, the worst of airports

The west coast of Africa has always been a problem for ships.  Most of the coast line is a barrier beach, backed by mangrove swamps, the water itself is fairly shallow offshore and heavy draft boats and ships cannot find a safe haven away from the roar of the Atlantic or the Gulf of Guinea.  One exception to this is the estuary on which Freetown, in Sierra Leone, sits.  Perched next to the only real mountain range that comes close to the sea in West Africa, the shelf drops steeply into the water and allowing a sheltered, deep water, unsilted harbour that was the envy of many colonial powers for years.

The city of Freetown grew up on the steep sides of these mountains; I suppose to afford fresher air and fewer insects than in the swamps on the north side of the harbour, but it meant that there is little flat ground in the city and it is isolated from the rest of the country by being at the end of a peninsula.

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The huge inlet on which Freetown sits

An advantageous harbour was a key concern for colonial powers up to the beginning of the 20th century but many a country has suffered as changing times means that an airport and access to a country’s interior is more important than ocean frontage and clean air.  Freetown was left with a dilemma.  The first problem is that there is only one main highway out of the city to the rest of Sierra Leone; which is heavily built up, industrialised and populated with hawkers and bus queues and not really functioning as a trunk road.  Indeed you have to drive for nearly 50km before you reach the next junction that can spread the traffic out.

The other problem was where to site an airport.   There is no drained flat land on the Freetown side of this huge estuary.  Also, many international airports in countries I have visited seem to be at the far end of a country from where the majority of the population lives – Hewanorra in St Lucia or Plaisance in Mauritius for example.  I’ve never been able to trace the history of Sierra Leone’s airport but I imagine there was a similar policy here – keep potentially useful military assets away from prying eyes.

The result is that Sierra Leone’s main airport is just south of the seaside town of Lungi, on the north side of this wonderful sheltered haven for boats, this massive estuary.  Most of the airline passengers will want to go to Freetown on the southern shore.  In the Middle East, Asia, North America or parts of Europe, a huge bridge would now span with an expressway and rail link. But this is one of the poorest countries in Africa and instead people need ferrying across by other means.

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