We piled back one more time into the vehicles and expected another long bumpy ride, but instead we headed about 100m into the central square of the town, turned right up a narrow street between several houses, right again and came to a stop under a large tree. To the right was a well built house with new aluminium roof. We piled out but Stephanie warned us not to unpack the luggage just yet. There were still about a dozen of us in the party, plus the drivers and we could not all fit in the guesthouse. The four women would stay here. The men would be dotted around a number of houses in the town. With a little trepidation as to what the accommodation was to be, myself, Matt and one of the Freetown STEWARD staff, James, headed off with one of the local STEWARD staff who had come out to greet us. We walked past a small mosque, down a couple of footpaths in between various houses and came across a solid building with wooden shutters across the windows. The main entrance was hidden away in a small courtyard shared with several other houses but there was another door out the back. The building had four small bedrooms off a main room, but the furniture was austere. In the main room there was a small wooden table with one chair, and there was a low flat bed and chair in each of the other rooms. The only other objects were a set of plastic buckets and water containers, all empty at present. There was no kitchen, and we were shown a communal lavatory, basically a hole in the ground in a fly ridden shelter outside, and the bathroom. This was a gravelly space enclosed on four sides by grass fence but no roof. Well, we were only here one night; we could make the best of it. However we thought it was a concern that none of the doors had locks on them so we talked to the local STEWARD guy and while he searched for a handy man, we took a turn around town.
For as we all piled back into the vehicles and the cavalcade headed off down the track round the corner I had been observing, I realised there was no border post on the Guinean side. Indeed we then proceeded to drive for a further 40 minutes. We were not at a border, we were at a frontier. I’d had the feeling ever since we crossed the Scarcies River on the ferry that I was detached from the rest of Sierra Leone, but now I realised we were heading through a gently changing continuum from one country to another.
The landscape continued to open up and there were far more areas of just grass. Northern Sierra Leone does not have cattle, they tend goats and maybe a few sheep and pigs, but no cows. Here I saw my first herd as we drove through this no-man’s land. Indeed this was no empty space between the two countries; there were people on bikes, herdsmen with their cattle, women and children carrying wood on their heads, and even the odd collection of inhabited huts.
The weather had closed in again as we crossed a large bas fond, heavily grazed down to the roots, and our way ahead was barred by a barbed wire fence. Near our track was a camouflaged watchtower. Aimed at our vehicles was a machine gun, although since it was rusting out in the rain I doubt it would have done us much damage. There was the usual style of chain check point, but it did not go down immediately. Haba chatted to the three guys in their fatigues, showed the vehicle laissiez passer and I fully expected we would be next to be inspected. But instead the chain went down and we passed through. This was merely the military border. In fact our driver explained that technically we were still in Sierra Leone. We had not left yet. The border was ahead of us running through the southern part of the town of Madina Oula to which we were now gently descending. We passed a series of fields, then huts, then more substantial houses and were finally coming into the market of Madina Oula when I spotted the actual barrier that marked the border between Sierra Leone and Guinea. Right outside the police station in the centre of town. And when I looked at my GIS maps of the area, although there was some confusion as to where the exact border was all round here, several of the lines converged on this point.
With the market still in full swing around us, Haba once more went through the process of getting his laissiez passers inspected and stamped, and all our passports were taken in a bundle into the dark recesses of the station. Stephanie accompanied Haba and came out with a tired smile on her face to tell us we could go ahead to the STEWARD guesthouse and they would pick up the passports later.
We said our farewells to Hugo and set off down the road out of the village. I’d been pondering what it was like to cross the border into Guinea. Was it like so many places where the two huts were a few yards apart and there was a little no man’s land in between? From the meeting room where we had lunched, I could see the road wind down through the houses to where it was obvious there was a stream hidden in the trees and I imagined that was where the post would be, but when we drove down and back up the other side, I realised the village was set back from the border. It was in fact another kilometre or so before we reached the police post on the Sierra Leone side. The rainclouds had all but cleared now and the sun was beating down on this point. Haba and the other drivers took our passports and the vehicle paperwork into the small brick police station at the side of the road while the rest of us sat quietly in the cars. The most senior official came out and walked to a small open wooden shelter covered with reed thatch adjacent to the road, and Haba beckoned us to join him.
This high tech border post needed only three pieces of kit; a tatty old ledger, a rubber stamp and an ink pad. He took some time moving the date on the stamp to today’s date. Carefully and laboriously the man wrote all our passport details into the ledger, rolled the stamp across the ink pad and firmly marked our passports with the exit visa. Amongst the several American, the couple of British, the Ghanaian, Nigerian and several Sierra Leone passports, I was processed about half way through and walked back towards the vehicle. The track headed across a small stream from here and I imagined the Guinean border post was just round the corner, obscured at present by some shrubs, and I also imagined the process would be as long and laborious round there. Apart from this hut and an old abandoned brick shack on the other side of the track, there were no buildings in sight. I was just surrounded by farm land interspersed with scrub. It proved that borders could be very artificial artefacts of human life. This was to be proved in spades over the rest of the afternoon.
We had parked by a different style of construction. It was made up of open wooden frames in a square and a huge roof made of grass coming to an open point. It was used as a meeting room by the community and we squeezed in to the space. We waited a while for the chief and his elders to congregate then had a brief meeting looking at the issues in Sanya. We were not to go on a tour of the town, but we were to be given lunch here and from a nearby house huge plates and bowls of rice, chicken curry, fish stew, okra, came into this meeting room. We ate with the elders and then made our farewells as we still had to cross the border.
Sanya is the last village in Sierra Leone, and now I looked more carefully, had some of the trappings, albeit on a small scale, of a border settlement. There was steady traffic in both directions but not just the usual bikes and motorbikes, but more heavily laden taxis and trucks. One of our vehicles did not have the permit to cross into Guinea, and Hugo had to return to Freetown to catch a plane home. So there was a lot of reorganisation of the luggage. Haba’s STEWARD car roof rack was piled even higher and the tarpaulin carefully tied over the top as the rain appeared to be returning. While this was going on I was once more observing the village life around me. During the meeting and lunch, the sides of the meeting room were filled with dozens of pairs of eyes as the children of Sanya came to look at the visitors – I felt even more in a cage than in Sumata. When the feast was over, there was a lot of spare rice and sauce. The main cook stood on the step of her veranda and ladled out spoon after spoon to the children who mobbed around her. They were not especially under or malnourished, but the opportunity to get some extra calories and different tastes was not to be missed, and if you saw your friend getting some, why not you?
But for some of the kids they were torn; do they continue to watch these weird outsiders in their funny clothes taking pictures on little machines and talking in strange languages, or do you go for the ladle. Some tried to do both, looking at us in one direction while their hands were stretched out in the other, i.e. towards the rice dish.
It was a long drive to Sanya, and I noted that the road itself was of poorer quality once we left Sumata. The rain had also started to fall. With the steam on the inside and the drops on the window, there was not a lot to see, but at least we were lucky to be in the dry. We passed by people huddling under the trees, or just walking along in the rain by the road, trying to avoid our splashes as we went past. At one point the convoy came to a complete halt; up ahead was a medium sized bridge – it was two metal girders over two concrete posts crossing a ravine of some 7-8 metres deep. The general structure seemed sound enough but there were some concerns about the wooden planks over the top. The ones perpendicular to the road were in various states of decay; and overlain there were planks along the road to line up with our tyres, but one section of these were missing completely. We were not entirely certain that the planks were nailed together properly and with the weight of the vehicles plus luggage and passengers, we were wondering how much shifting of the planks would occur, potentially destabilising the whole structure and sending us toppling off into the ravine.
Clearly we were not the only ones that were concerned about the bridge. To the left of the road, down a steep rocky incline, was a second track, down to the dry river bed and back up an easier slope. One by one the 4x4s negotiated this slippy hill and we went on along the track on the far side.
The rain began to clear, but our rental drivers were again inexperienced in dealing with the now muddy road and Haba had jumped way ahead. We caught up with them at a point, where for both men and women was a useful relief stop, and I finally got a few moments to look around. The terrain was changing. In the east, a sheer cliff of sandstone rising over 1000ft to a plateau. Gray confirmed this was the Kuru Hills. Where we were now was a more open woody savannah, more grassy areas in between the tree stands than in Fintonia. We dropped down over the next few miles to Sanya village. Although the weather was gloomy, it only added to a feeling of decay in Sanya. Yes the same mould and moss was all over the houses as elsewhere an everywhere looked muddy, but more of the houses were in poor repair.
On the edge of the village we were taken on a diversion to see some curious white boxes on legs under big trees. One of STEWARD’s older activities had been to establish beekeeping. The rich honey of the African wild bee has been always prized by people in this part of the world, but the difficulty in obtaining it from caves high up in cliffs or up in the canopies of trees was a risky business. Not only could the forager fall a long way and injure themselves badly, but if the bees decided to fight while you were up there it could be fatal.
By encouraging the establishment of hives near the village, of course, these safety features were taken into consideration; the bees might still sting as badly but at least you could stand a chance by running away. The high value honey was also easier to collect from hives and the bees could be important pollinators in the small holdings, fields and fruit trees around the village.
We were shown these hives and then as we headed back into the village, one of the farmers dived into his house and came out with his beekeepers kit. We watched him do a quick change into his top to toe white coveralls, his wellingtons, his red rubber gloves , and his smoker. The result was a space age alien living amongst a bunch of Susu farmers.
They wanted to show us more and to stay with them, but we had to thank them for their hospitality and get back in our vehicles. We had another meeting at the village of Sanya on the border, then cross into Guinea before they closed the border post for the night.
There was no time for more as we had to set off for the fields. The children, now enchanted by the visitors with their high tech gizmos followed like the children of Hamlin. We saw the plant nursery, the community forest and the watershed catchment; to be honest it was very similar to the other two villages, but the villagers were so proud of their achievements that we had to afford them the same time to explain their activities. As we went round the children started by following a few paces behind us, then we found them walking along side us, usually in silence. If one of them made a silly remark or laughed too loud they were scolded by their peers. They wanted to be around us and see what we would do. I started to feel like a zoo exhibit. Then the most remarkable thing happened. Anne and Stephanie put out their hands to a couple of the children and they in turn reached out and walked alongside. The other children were immediately jealous, but still slightly nervous. I put out my hand to one quiet boy, he must have been barely three feet high. His cold fingers touched mine, gingerly at first but then with a tight and what felt like a content grip. Someone else took my other hand without me even gesturing. At one time I actually had three on one side and two on the other, reaching for any part of my arm that was not already taken. This way we walked back to the village. The conversation was very stilted- we could all manage Bonjour and Hello, but if I said more than Ca va, they went quiet on me. But they just enjoyed the experience.
As we walked back through the village, some of the kids broke off naturally, bored of this game. Others were bawled at by their family to get on with the work they were supposed to have done hours ago. I got a couple of garbled “goodbye’s” from them but that was all.
Next morning we had another early start. We had to pack the vehicles with all our kit, pay our bills to the warden – nice that the project would pay for accommodation in spite of being big assistance to their programs. No point in giving aid if you take advantage of those who you help by taking freebies. We had given quite a nice tip to our warden on the river the day before; it was a nice extra not an expected right.
We bounced off back to the main road and on up to Fintonia. A small stop to pick up Momoh who was renting a room there, and a quick stop at the office then we headed down to the paramount chief’s house once more, but this time we turned left into a deep dark river valley and up the other side. We travelled several miles, past a small hamlet where a couple of families were doing their chores round the house. Several of these hamlets had grown up over time. With shifting cultivation, it usually starts with farmers in some central location and heading out to the bush to clear and farm. Over time, the number of fertile plots decreases close in and people have to travel further to cultivate land; which means more back and forth by foot, or if you are lucky, on a bike or small tractor. There comes a point where this is too far to be economical or healthy, and families might relocate to a fresh area to start cultivation away from the congested or infertile lands near the village. My only concern about this is whether these new hamlet have enough access to permanent water, but I assume some borehole or stream was near enough to make it viable.
The next village proper was Sumata and as we drove in, I was taken at how elegant its main street looked. Not just the substantial houses we had seen elsewhere but both sides of the road were lined with mature mango trees dangling an excess of near ripe fruit. As we parked up at the top of a street, most of the villagers not in the fields or in town came to greet us and walked down to the chief’s house. He had a good size veranda that accommodated most people for the meeting, but the surrounding ground was still full of children and onlookers.
The meeting went as the others, and we broke up to take a walk around the STEWARD activities again. While some side meetings were going on, Gray’s USGS colleague, Matt had seen that the children were following him around, so he made them form a group and take a photo of them. It’s a scene from any travel blog or writings of the last twenty years. Some people are still not happy for you to take photos of them (the fishermen at Kabba Ferry were some), and some would like to have some money for you taking their photos, but the big advantage with digital cameras, particularly with the large displays on the back, is you can instantly show your subjects the results. And the reactions are wonderful – embarrassed teenage girls wishing they had spent more time on their hair, cheeky children laughing and giggling as soon as you show them their mugshot, older men and women just happy to see themselves on this new fangled technology. Matt got all the children to crouch down and quieten them, but once taken, they thronged around him to get a view from the tiny screen. Even the local imam took a peek. Of course once they had seen the trick once, they wanted it again and again and again and again…..
The row back was pleasant enough, although now we were heading against the current, I could appreciate how much there was and I felt that I had had a good workout by the time we reached the camp. As the late afternoon had been, the evening also turned into a glorious one, and from the clearing of the camp we watched as the night encroached revealing a myriad of stars. The company had bonded well over the last four days, especially the last two on the road and we had a very pleasant dinner.
My favourite guy in this group was Gray, a senior scientist, a fellow geographer, from the US Geological Survey in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A very gentle north USA man, keen intellect, almost obsessive about some of his areas of interest such as land cover, satellite imagery and bank note collections, he was also incredibly generous and constantly looking to soak up knowledge from others.
He was in his favourite habitat out here, the bush of West Africa. He intimately knew all the landscapes, how they formed, where they could be found and taught me most of what I type here on land cover. He was also a backwoodsman, and loved camping in the open air. He showed us various items from his survival kit, which Hugo too soaked up. That lovely evening, after a glass or two of wine, Gray announced he thought he would head out into the fields to look at the stars. Kofi and I accompanied him. On the far side of the clearing, where we had held our meeting on the first day, there was a second track which led to the wardens camp, which was based around one longhouse separated into a series of single room accommodations. The wardens were sitting around a small fire talking quietly and a small transistor radio was playing from one of the rooms. We greeted each other as we passed and soon were out from the trees and in the fields. There were a few small trees either side of the track, but otherwise we had a clear view of the sky. And what a sky. With no electric lights for miles around, and the camp fires from where we had come well out of sight, we could see it all. There were a few dark blotches where clouds obliterated space; it was after all getting in to wet season. But that dampness meant that the haziness from too much dust and smoke was completely absent; the clarity of the air gave us the best chance to see as many stars as we could.
I am only an expert in stars where you do not get this clarity – when only the brightest stars are present and you can pick out familiar constellations. We were over 40 degrees south of UK, so while many stars I saw up north were in the sky here, they were at curious angles above the horizon, and some of the southern hemisphere stars were also present. Gray could pick out many but as he pointed into the sky I just saw a mass and had trouble picking out the shapes. I was not discontent, the Milky Way strung out across the sky was enough for me.
We stood silently listening to the night noises. Even out here, we were not really in wilderness. We could faintly hear the wardens conversations in the distance, especially when they laughed. Once or twice there was the distant buzz of a motorbike as it ferried north and south on the main road from ferry to border, about 3km to the west of us. Coming along our track we saw a low red flash. A guy smoking was stumbling along in our direction. We realised he was on his own and didn’t want to shock him too much, and we realised he was completely drunk; the noise of his walking was more scraping and faltering than striding. So we started talking in reasonable voices as he got within about 50 metres. It still took him a while to realise there were human beings in front of him. He just grunted as we said “Bon Soir” to him; he was obviously struggling enough to stay conscious and heading in the right direction to worry too much about us.
The clouds which had been obscuring the distant view were a lot closer and as a few spots or rain fell on our faces we reluctantly turned back to the camp and our beds. The rain came heavy that night and I was glad I was in the relatively waterproof cabin than out in the tents.
We had come to a halt, still in open water but only a few yards from the right bank. We could observe the hippo activity completely now and we watched them yawn, those huge gaping jaws showing off the chunky tusks on each corner. A low laugh would come from different individuals; it really did sound like a slow and deliberate guffaw and its echoes vibrated around the riverbank and into the forest.
We grew aware that the bull was not all together happy with our presence. He would gently raise his head, maybe to get a better look at us, maybe to show how big he was, and it would be associated with a blast of air through his nose which would send a spray several metres across the water.
All together with some young as well, we counted eleven hippos. The young had now gathered close to their mothers. We asked the warden whether it was safe to remain here. He seemed pretty relaxed so we continued to watch, although I did glance up at the bank to my right to see if there was an escape route if I needed it. In theory hippos are safer in water than on land. They feel calmer as they know they can submerge and move along the bottom, and as long as we did not directly confront them they would continue to wallow. They felt nervous and vulnerable on land. And at least in water if they came for you you might get a glancing blow and the water would take you away, on land the weight of a couple of ton of sausage would give you some nasty injuries… or so I rationalised.
Their behaviour continued to worry everyone but the warden. The bull had found a rock or sandbank in the river and was now raising himself out of the water past the shoulders while flapping his ears menacingly at us and continuing the snorts from his nostrils. Without us being aware of it happening, the rest of the family were now stretched up and down the left bank in a line about 100m long. A couple of the younger hippos were also mimicking the dominant bull; facing us and doing the same manoeuvres.
It was when the bull submerged and then re-emerged about 20m closer to us that the four tourists decided that enough was enough – nice to get so close but no need to aggravate them further. The river was wide at this point but a couple of the hippos were now upstream of us and in theory could cut off any attempt to retrace our cruise. There were still several hippos below us too and we were steadily being ambushed. So we told, did not ask, the guide that we would go. I put away my camera and quietly picked up the second oar and we turned the canoe round as gently as possible to face upstream and without making a ripple, pushed off… literally. Hugo and Gray had come to the same conclusion and also made off with as little disturbance as possible.
Whether the ambush was us just being paranoid, whether they were blustering or were just moving around their patch, we shall never know, but our gentle exit from their pool seemed to diffuse any tensions and they never followed us further upstream.