The three passengers stayed out of the car to lighten the load. The driver walked over the bridge and located the dodgiest of the planks. They were almost all loose, and some had cracks in them that went from one side to the other. While some planks had been laid along the length of the bridge to act as guides for vehicles wheels, these were missing in one place. It was going to be an interesting test, but it had to happen.
The driver headed back up the north bank and turned the car onto the bridge. He wanted enough momentum to get across (and get out of difficulty if something went wrong) but he needed to go slowly enough to avoid making misjudgements and not to shake the bridge to bits.
He gently manoeuvred the car onto the guiding planks and apart from some wobbling as the cross planks bowed under the weight, he made good progress. But then came the part to the left side where there was no guide and I watched in horror as the front left wheel dipped down below the bridge level. But he kept moving and it reappeared within a second and with much relief he got over the bridge and back on to terra firma. At what expense to the bridge’s infrastructure was up to the next vehicle to determine.
Will it get across?
We got back in the car and headed back to Fintonia. We had a celebration last bottle of wine from Gray’s stash with dinner that night and started to pack up. We were heading back to Freetown the next day. We only had to have a final farewell meeting with the Paramount Chief to thank him and the villagers for their tolerance of our work, and to our trainees and set out the plan for Kofi to return to continue the work soon.
I always have mixed feelings moving on from a location like this. I always like moving around and seeing new places so travelling excites me. And I wanted to go to a location where I could use bathrooms like I am used to. Unfortunately some of the mosquito bites had become infected, swollen up badly and had built up pus and I wanted to get some proper treatment. But I could not help but feel humbled by being allowed to stay in this village, to share some times with such friendly people. They may not have the trappings of comfortable life and they obviously strive for something better, but they are by no means foolish or coveting and appreciate and work with what they have. They know they can live here in the wet and dry season, they have water, they look after the immediate forest, they hedge their bets and farm in different places around the village to get optimal yields and protect their crops from disease and pests. And they are hugely sociable with each other. It was such a privilege to get a brief insight into this life.
Joining up with Kofi and our driver in Moria, we drove back to our guest house in Fintonia. Once we joined the main road we came across some familiar places. The previous year Kofi, Matt Cushing (Gray’s colleague) and I had come back from Guinea this route in torrential rain. There was a dodgy bridge along the way that had been worn away by the many trucks and termites. Although the supports were solid concrete, and two metal railings crossed the gap, they were lined with planks of wood which had seen better days. Uncertain whether the bridge could support the 4WD’s weight, we had used an alternative route with dipped down into the stream then up a steep slope the far side. Going north was no problem; you dropped down the steep side and go back up on a much shallower gradient to rejoin the road, but going south you had to face this steep rock face. In the rain I had been terrified we would not make it and be stuck on the river bed with the water levels rising fast, but with much slipping and sliding we had made it up and continued on our way. of course the upshot of that had been that as we were congratulating ourselves at our good fortune, we came round a bend to discover the tree across the road which made us overnight in school storeroom.
In the dry season again we had had no problem that morning going north, and I thought being dry season the vehicle would grip up the rock face and get back on the road more easily than in the wet. Nope. Maybe the power of the engine was less, maybe the tyres were more worn, or maybe the rock surface was too shiny and smoothed by all the vehicles that had already passed over it, but no way could we get up the bank. The car would hover on the rocks while the engine overheated and whined at us, and the driver had to abort and gently slip us back onto the riverbed. We tried a couple of times but the car was seriously heating up. We looked at the bridge. Maybe we just had to take a chance at crossing it, but the contemplation of what would happen if the planks failed was daunting. I did not want to see our transport fall headlong onto the river bed some 7m below, and I feared for the driver who could get seriously injured in the fall. But there appeared to be no alternative. This was the only road south to north for miles around. I mean miles. The next road west was near the coast, the one east was in Guinea heading into even more impenetrable forest. Any diversion would take hours.
Stuck in the valley
The pathway was a very sensible one, in fact. It worked its way through the lowest point in the Kuru Hills around here and kept in the shade, for humans much more useful than being out in the open and having the burden to climb extra altitude. For us it was nothing short of frustrating. There was not even a good view on the west side through those trees. We stopped just where the trail dropped steeply away again and again all we had in front of us was the canopy of some very large trees. We decided to have some lunch before we headed back. We had carried up some baguettes we had bought from a local shop in Fintonia, and was using up a couple of tins of corned beef and tuna from Freetown; we had also purchased some tomatoes from a woman on the road side. With our drinks it was a humble but enjoyable meal – made wonderful by being immersed in the forest and the feat of the climb.
We stumbled our way back down the pathway; apart from the noise of the chimps, we had seen little wildlife. It is often the way when you walk about in the middle of the day. I’d observed hundreds of different plants, and marvelled at the huge buttress trees that clung to the sides of the escarpment, some with knobbly spines, others with silky smooth bark.
In some ways I was sorry he was heading down, but also I realised I was fitter than I had expected. Although it was a tough climb in this climate, I was not overtired, no parts of my body were aching unduly. And I was intrigued enough to see the top of the hills and hope to get a view down the other side to continue the exertion.
The climb became even steeper. I was now really clambering, not walking. I was having to lift my leg right up to reach up to the next step, holding on to the tree trunks as I went, but looking carefully first to make sure I was not putting my hand on some angry insect or spiky thorn. I paused frequently, as much to gain my breath as to wait for Gray and our ranger friend to catch up. Gray is about ten years older than I and he told me between gasps that he was hoping to have done more exercise before he left the US but time caught up on him.
We paused at one stop; there was no room on the path to stand at the same elevation so my foot was level with Gray’s chest and his foot above the ranger’s head. The wind was gently swaying the trees at this elevation but it barely reached us sweating on the forest floor. There were other noises too. A loud crackling noise came up from the plain. It sounded like it was nearby but when we managed to find a clearing, we saw billowing plumes of smoke. It must have been 10km away but the size of the fire front was so large it was creating this cacophony; it was bringing down large trees. It was less than half way through the dry season that the sight of this fire made me fear for the villages in March and April before the rains finally broke.
There were more noises closer to us. We could hear a deep resonating hooting from the cleft in the escarpment to our right; it was answered by more calling from deeper down the valley. It was accompanied by the sound of branches being vigorously thrashed. I was listening to my first wild chimpanzees. No way could we see them through this thick canopy, and the ranger estimated they were about 1km away, but there was no mistaking their voices, various deep sounds mixed with cackling going through a couple of octaves. Although it was the barest contact with these amazing creatures, it felt magical and humble to be in their homes.
Eventually we the path levelled off and skirted along the escarpment edge, but instead of glorious vistas off towards Guinea, we saw just tree trunks. The vegetation here never opens up to a grassy plain. Gray consulted a big print out of his land cover map he had worked on from the satellite imagery and was disappointed to work out that the pathway did not get close to these uniform green areas that he suspected were long grass.
We parked the car under some shady trees in the village of Moria which, although it was probably not known to Tolkien, did have a sort of Middle Earth air about it (acknowledged it was not subterranean). It made Fintonia look like a metropolis. It was a group of a hundred or so huts in amongst the trees; there was no real centre. Where the road stopped was at the edge of the village and to reach our path up in to the hills we had to navigate through a series of people’s backyards. It was already mid morning and many villagers were in their fields or away on errands. A few young mothers were cleaning up their houses, sitting chatting in the shade of their compounds. A couple of very old men were sat in wooden chairs on their porches, mostly oblivious to the world around them and certainly to this foreign party passing through.
We started to climb through some fields behind the village but as the gradient got steeper the cultivation stopped and we were in the usual scrubby woodland of all this area. It was a glorious sunny day and the climb was hard work for all of us. We would get glimpses of the escarpment ahead and I wondered just where this path made the ascent to get us to the top. These mesas are common in this part of the world. The Guinea Highlands are a series of plateaus in the interior of west Africa and form a continuous belt separated from the coastal lands by almost sheer cliffs. In the coastal plain itself there are vestigial pieces of these highlands standing proud above the plain. The Kuru Hills is an example of this. On a map it appears like a pick axe with a swollen head at the northern end and a long shaft heading southwards. We were climbing the handle. Our purpose in exerting so much energy was to see what was on top of these mesas. Being elevated, they had markedly different vegetation from the rest of the region. Just what that vegetation looked like was difficult to determine from the satellite imagery. All we saw was more green colours reflecting back, and much of it uniform. That told us that much of the area had much higher rainfall than the surrounds which may have extended into the dry season, keeping the vegetation in leaf much longer but whether this was forest or grassland was difficult to spot from the imagery we had to hand.
So up we went, and the walk helped to identify layers of vegetation at different altitudes too. From the scrub forest we passed another of the small rubber plantations. Gray had read that the British had experimented with rubber in Sierra Leone. It had never really caught on but these old plantations still existed. It looked like the locals did not tap the sap here, but did use the trees for timber and fuel. Beyond the rubber the undergrowth got very tangled and dense and we could not see far as we plodded up the steep path. The lack of air circulation made us intolerably sweaty and overheated. It was too much for Kofi. I’d always been amazed how this slight, urban man from Ghana had coped with the village work out here in the most remote parts of Sierra Leone, but cope he did. Although never looking like he was enjoying the experiences of mosquitoes and mud and scratching seeds and grasses, sweat and humidity, he never moaned, and usually had this impassive tolerant air about him. But on this slope he was defeated. His reasoning was he saw no reason to kill himself trying to get to the top of the hill. He said he would head back to the village.
Nevertheless, it was with renewed excitement that I woke up the next day. We made an early start for the Kuru Hills. Gray was out here mapping the vegetation for the whole of West Africa. He was trying to teach various agencies in each of the country’s his techniques but still him and his colleagues had to do the bulk of the work. I admired his techniques of interpreting the landscape and mapping the different types of vegetation and land use on the surface, and I wanted to see how he did his field work, keen to pick up some tips.
One of the national park rangers from the Kilimi-Outamba Park joined us in Fintonia and we travelled north from the village , past Sumata where we had been stranded by the fallen tree the previous year. The road was permanently diverted round the remains of our tree and the tree itself was now overgrown. We passed a couple of hamlets and the village of Yana, then Gray and the driver started talking about where the turn off was. He spotted it no problem – Gray is a supreme geographer therefore an obvious navigator. It was only 7km to the foot of the Kuru Hills but the track was narrow and potholed and it wound up and down and round and round to take the easiest route through the knobbly terrain. Gray was already working as we went along. He had spotted a series of strips of vegetation that looked more uniform than most of the forest and they appeared to be along this route we were taking now. We looked around to spot we were traversing along a narrow strip of rubber trees. To our left the natural forest could be seen starting again only about 30m away, and about the same distance to the right we could see scrub and a view out over the plain below these foothills of the Kuru range. It seemed that the track we were on would have been to service these trees and ship the timber back to the coast. The villages we passed through close to the end of our journey had most probably sprung up because of the road, not vice versa.
The sun was now dropping below the horizon and the sky turned a deep red then rich purple. I got as far as a turn in the road on top of a hill and could just see out to the east where the greener and more forested area of the Outamba National Park could be seen a few kilometres away. Gray had been spending most of his time in there and had returned with amazing stories of the beauty of this place. I’d only managed a brief visit the previous year when I had a magical trip down the Scarcies River to watch hippos. But Kofi and I had decided we needed a change. Part of our remit was to look at the geographical aspects of our partners’ work, and this was to give us the excuse to travel with Gray to another of his sites for his mapping, the Kuru Hills to the north.
I turned for home and walked at a faster pace as the darkness was now coming on fast. I dodged a couple of taxis speeding as fast as their decrepit frames could carry them to the ferry before the boatmen knocked off for the night. I met several people along the way, mostly women carrying wood back to the village for the evening meal, a couple of farmers looking weary after a day in their fields, some carrying fodder for their animals back at base. One man was very pleased to see me; he talked in good English asking me where I came from and what I was doing. The conversation was quite detailed but I got a little nervous when he asked whether I was going to church the next day. He told me where it was and he felt that we all need saving so I would be welcomed in. I thanked him but tried to make no commitments; I am not a religious man of any hue, and was looking forward to a humanistic day amongst this amazing landscape. I said I had to get back for dinner and walked faster away from him.
Sunset on my walk
I had noticed that the mosquito bites had got worse each day, and I also saw, because it was difficult to bathe properly here, that some of the wounds were starting to fester. It was a nuisance; although I wore long trousers in the day time while out in the bush, it was nice to relax in shorts before the sun went down, but my open sores attracted flies. Flies during the day, and more mosquitoes at night; it was never a restful time there.