Of course despite this final adventure, we were a long way from Freetown. It took another hour or so to reach Fintonia, where we caught sight of Momoh on his veranda. He was surprised to see us – he thought that because we had not turned up for lodgings the night before that we had pressed on southwards. We did not delay now, we had a quiet recrossing of the Kaba River and then settled down to the four hours of bumpy road to Makeni again. Once on the main road our driver was going a little stir crazy from all the forest driving and events and put his foot down. We had to remind him to calm down a little and get us back to Freetown alive, as he overtook another cavalcade of lorries and just managed to get back on his own side of the road before being hit by one in the return direction. He just wanted to come home. But he made the mistake of taking the main Kissy Road back into the city and we were another hour before I was dropped off at the STEWARD Guest House, to tell tales of daring do and hardship….. and get the laundry done and nurse the mosquito bites.
Eventually the window lightened and as soon as I could extricate myself from between my two colleagues, I headed out into the school playground. A couple of biscuits, some water and a quick swill with a toothbrush and we were ready to move. We waited for a while for the caretaker to assemble two younger relatives to go with us with a set of machetes. It was a grey soulless day, but the heat was already rising as we trudged the five miles back to where we hoped the vehicle still was. Steam rose from the dense thickets either side, and there were sandy pools of water standing from the previous day’s rain. When we reached the site we saw the full extent of the medium sized tree that had fallen across the road. Peering behind it was the red van and surprisingly it was still the only vehicle there – there was not even evidence of anyone turning around behind our car – nothing else had ventured out in to the torrential rainfall of the previous evening.
I thought the machetes were a little useless against the thick trunk of the tree – a medium sized tree in the tropics is still a mighty object. But of course that was not the intention. They set about demolishing the smaller branches off the top of the tree now buried in the undergrowth . While the tree had uprooted from a bank on the west side that would have been unscaleable even in a four by four, the east side dropped gently downhill and as far as I could make out with no muddy hollows to swallow up our vehicle. Kofi and I seemed pretty useless compared to the driver and two local guys who hacked away for about 45 minutes. We helped clear the excess shrubbery and throw it in to the bush, but my attempts with the machete in the thick humid air were futile – sweat gushed over my brows after a few swipes.
The last and largest branch was too heavy to bodily lift so the four of us dragged and levered it into the main part of the track, leaving just enough room for our vehicle to squeeze past. We stood and watched as our driver gingerly guided the car over the piles of leaves, macheted undergrowth and loose twigs and branches, hoping it would not sink into mud, suffer a puncture from the remains of the tree or veer off into impenetrable bush. It did none of these and with a roar he bumped the car back onto the safety of the sandy track.
There were cheers and whoops all round, and a lot of relieved smiles. It was barely 8 am. The two local guys piled in the back and we drove them back to the school; handing over a very appreciated payment to all, and to the caretaker for giving us some board the night before. And we were on our way.
There was nothing to be done tonight; so we agreed to camp at the school. The caretaker showed us a small room used as a store cupboard mainly but with one bed and a few rush sleeping mats. There was an overpowering smell as you walked in caused by a bat colony under the eaves, which also explained the shit all over the floor.
We were grateful for the bed and although the driver had already said he would be happier on the rush mat, the rest of us wanted some distance between our bodies and the creepy crawlies on the floor. There was also a mosquito net on the bed, so we decided we would swallow our pride and sleep together.
We also decided we would leave it as long as we could. So we spent the next hour or two out on the caretaker’s veranda. We had a few visitors from the village come up on their mopeds. They chatted a long time to the man and sympathised with our plight as best they could. One moped sped down to the blockage to take a look, and it was agreed that at first light a team would come up from the village with some machetes.
Our conversation with the caretaker and the family was very stilted; he had little French, no English and only a smattering of Krio. They kept their torches off to preserve the batteries so we sat in the dark, listening to the shuffling of the family on mats or benches or floor, the night sounds of insects in the nearby bushes. No four wheeled vehicles went along the road, only a couple of mopeds who went no further than the school itself. We were exhausted and concerned about our onward plans. I foresaw several hours of work to shift the tree; then it was still an 8 hour drive back to Freetown. Matt had one more day’s grace after that before he had to be on his plane to London. We needed to be up at first light if we were to make enough progress. We made motion to head to the stinking storeroom, thanked the caretaker one more time for his hospitality and reluctantly headed for our bed.
The driver plonked himself down on the rush mat almost immediately. We did the best we could to ablute, then the three of us crawled under the nylon mosquito netting. The bed was not insanitary, but it was hardly clean and it took a while to get used to the smell of bat faeces. The netting did provide us with some protection from the insects buzzing around the room and the three of us lay as still as possible to avoid disturbing or touching our bedmates. It was hardly surprising that despite the conditions of the accommodation, that I fell into a deep sleep quite quickly – the morning of meetings, the border crossing, long drive then walk to the school mounted up to an extremely busy day. But it was a fitful sleep and I remember waking up in the dark several times, almost wishing it were already daylight and we could attempt to move forward.
The rain was easing by now but it had already done the damage. The ground had become sodden and it must have only taken one sharp gust of wind to dislodge the roots from the soil; once it started tipping there was no going back.
We went back into the car to think through our options. There was no real point in trying to drive back – the nearest substantial village was a couple of hours away and we would have to get through that gully again. We could stick it out in the vehicle all night and see if anyone else came along, or walk forward to Sumata which by our estimations from GPS was about 8km down the road. At one point we thought we might split up sending a rescue party out while two stayed at the vehicle, but given it was now dark and there was no chance of clearing the blockage that night, we decided we should all walk. We looked in the boot and packed small overnight bags with essentials, mainly water, snacks and our torches, and locked the car up. Reluctantly but necessarily, we headed down the road.
We kept our torches off for the most time, and only used one at a time, but there was a dim glow from the starlight and somewhere a moon was beginning to rise behind the clouds so we could discern some shapes. There were no houses out here; no glows from fires where dinner must be on the go, and we met no-one on the road. The frogs were calling out but the flies were not too bad and we kept moving so they did not congregate.
I noticed the surface of the road kept changing – you tend to focus in on some things when your view is restricted by dark. In some places there were pools of water but the soil was generally sandy and, although firm, it was not sodden. We passed over some rocky areas, and there were times when the grass grew down the middle. We went up some steep slopes, but all we could see from the clearings at the top was more forest.
The road eventually flattened out and we realised we were walking next to a soccer pitch. We were at the junior school outside of Sumata, still about 1km from the village. But we saw some light in one of the buildings and when we reached a junction marked by white painted stones, we turned off and approached cautiously – we didn’t want to frighten whoever it was. It turned out to be a family of one late middle aged man, a wife, a couple of teenagers and several more kids down to a small baby.
Our driver was from Freetown and did not speak Susu, but the man had a smattering of Krio so we were able to tell him our story and find out he was the school caretaker. He offered us a seat, even in the dim light I am sure he could see that we were shattered. We sat and sipped our water, passed our snacks around; we were not offered any food and it would have been unexpected if we had – we had turned up mid evening to this remote place without any warning.
Another half hour passed and Haba was looking pissed – he had to get back to Madina Oula. The afternoon was well advanced when this guy came back. He never gave us a full explanation of what he had been doing, but claimed that he had been waiting in another place and didn’t know we had arrived. We didn’t argue for long, we needed to keep him sweet enough to get us back to Freetown. This time we did not have the security net of the convoy, we were travelling through the bush all alone. We said our farewells to Haba who was also in a hurry to get back across the border.
At least we knew the road this time, so we could gauge our progress, but the weather closed in hard on us for the first hour or so. At times the driver could barely make out the road ahead through the windscreen even with the wipers on max. He hissed and sighed a good deal, especially when he went through a pothole too fast. Most of the people were under cover as we passed through, but a few were still out carrying wood on their heads, trying to stay away from our splashes as best they could. With all this rain, the one place I was really concerned about was the ropey wooden bridge near Sumata. With the rain pouring the gully might be filled, and the slopes would definitely be slippy.
We could spot the bridge from about a 100m away, and decided to risk the gully route over the rotted planks one. Going down into the gully was no problem; the slope was gentle and although muddy still firm enough to get a grip and the gully itself was fortunately not yet in flood. The up side was mostly rocky outcrop and much steeper and the rain had made it incredibly slippy. Our driver took the best run he could at it, but his wheels spun and we went sideways, almost at one stage going dangerously parallel to the slope. We slid back down to the bottom. He got out in the rain and reccied the road ahead; it was difficult to see whether one patch was more favourable than another. He took another stab, and amidst a lot of smoke, wheelspin and engine noise, we reached the top. We gave him a lot of credit for this. It was already dusk, made darker by the heavy clouds, but we only had a few more kilometres to get to Sumata then another hour to Fintonia and our stop for the night. The relief amongst all four of us was palpable.
About five minutes later we were passing through a dense piece of forest, the rain still lashing down and the light fading fast. We were chatting quite freely after the tense moments at the bridge. We drove round a corner to find our way completely blocked. The rain had brought down a tree, about 15m high – right across the track and into the herbaceous scrub to our left. We got out the car and took a look – it was far too large for us to bodily move it, the roots on one side, the shrubbery on the other too thick to divert around it, and even if we tried, who knew how soft the ground was there and whether we could get back on the track again.
We headed back to the guesthouse in the middle of town for a stodgy lunch of rice and chicken once more. The rest of the team had another meeting in the afternoon, but Matt, Kofi and I had to start heading back to Freetown, and needed to cross the border to Guinea. Given we had lost one of our vehicles on day one of the trip, the logistics for this was a little complex. Hugo had lost us a second vehicle the day before, and two were needed to go forward to the southern part of Guinea. Fortunately, the rental company had provided us with another vehicle that had travelled to Fintonia the day before; it had no papers to cross in to Guinea, so we needed to be dropped at the border and this new rental plus driver would be there to pick us up….. hopefully.
Haba would take us through the border and so we packed into the STEWARD Toyota. He drove with his usual care and speed and we flew down to the Sierra Leone border. There only being three of us, and once Haba had explained he was just dropping us off, the immigration did not take long. However the stamp I got in my passport that day caused me problems at Lungi Airport. Although I now had a multi-entry visa, the stamp at Sanya was for two weeks only, and I was to be in Freetown about 18 more days. This was spotted as I left the immigration and only after several minutes of pointing out that I also had a month long stamp from Lungi airport, I had not seen the need to look for an extension. How I got away without a detention or a bribe at Lungi I have no idea but sheer determination when I want to go home often gets me through silly bureaucracy. When I try and be reasonable that is when I normally get caught out.
We passed through the border post and drove into Sanya village. The sunny weather just before lunch had all but gone; Haba was sucking through his teeth a little and saying that the wet season was well and truly arrived. The rain was falling steadily now. Haba was well known in Sanya and he stopped off near the Secretary’s house where he often lodged when passing through. The rental car was parked in the centre of the village not far from where we had had lunch the previous day, but of our driver there was no sign. We sat in the car for a while but as the windows clogged up with steam the three of us wandered up on to the veranda of the Secretary’s house, greeted various family members and friends there and perched where we could. There being no mobile reception here, Haba’s phone was useless so he sent some people off to look for the guy. We had a few ideas what he might be up to; a couple of which were not very salubrious.
I’m so much more patient in Africa than back home, but even so half an hour passed here very slowly and the calculations were going on in my head – the drive to Fintonia was probably 4 hours from here in the best of weather and the rain was gushing down now, it was dripping off roofs into buckets and pans, overspilling down the steps and brown rivulets of water were forming in all the erosion gullies.
There was some activity on the road while we sat there; several old rusty taxis packed full of people and their roofs overloaded with luggage, bounced down the rocky road towards the border. Not much seemed to be going south. A couple of trucks also passed through, belching black smoke into the rain. I started to wonder if the three of us would have to catch one of the taxis ourselves. Matt had to be back in Freetown in two days as he had a flight to head to London the day after.
We had one more stop that morning in the small village of Kansema to the east of Madina Oula. The sun had come out again and the village looked very pleasant, mostly thatched rectangular houses in the centre shaded by mango trees. We were greeted by a couple of men and we waited as the chief came out of his house and his secretary started to direct the locals to obtain some seating. As was now a routine, various chairs and benches, even a bucket or two, were dragged out of all the nearby houses and we had our meeting right there in the centre of the village.
As in all the other places we visited we attracted a lot of attention. At one point I looked across the road to a shady open wooden shed and was greeted by about twenty pairs of eyes of children staring back; new ones would arrive every minute and shuffle inside to keep cool, as well as for them to feel safe from their shyness. We could not get away without inspecting the community forest so we trooped up a gentle hill to the north. As we headed up the view to the south revealed itself. So far in Guinea, the land had been gently undulating and, without the forest of Sierra Leone, you could see for miles across the plain. Here we were close to the border and the northern edge of the Kuru Hills abruptly rose up and imposed itself on Kansema. Deep in the hills were chimpanzees and elephants, so close to a manicured human landscape on the Guinea side. Here was the physical evidence of the fine balance needed for thriving environments but sustainable livelihoods.