Days and Nights of Freetown – Kofi’s car

I was off to Fintonia the next morning so did not engage more in that culture till I returned back the following weekend.  After defecating through a hole in concrete, bathing with buckets and itchy sweaty sleeping under a claustrophobic plastic mosquito net; the little project apartment at the foot of the tower block in the northern fringes of Wilberforce was like a 5 star hotel.  It had two main rooms, a kitchen diner and a lounge with TV, and two bedrooms off.  The main bedroom had a window out front and en suite bathroom and if I could, I would try and take that.  With other consultants coming through it was a case of first come, first served and more often than not I was put in the second bedroom.  This was at the back of the main living room and built into the hillside, so there were no outside windows for light, ventilation or view.  Worse, it had a small window which opened onto the living room itself, so if others were in the house and using the living room the light and noise came through.  Still, I was usually too tired from the work and the heat to care and slept well whichever of the rooms I ended up in.

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The STEWARD apartment block

On the floor above, our project manager, Jan, lived in a spacious apartment with a proper balcony and plenty of room; as it was up from mine, there was more distance from the front of the block to the hill behind.  We did not tend to socialise a huge amount the first time I was there, but now the weather was out I often could hear his music when I came out the front and we talked a lot more.  He’d started exploring Freetown of a weekend and he asked if I would like to join him on some trips.  I jumped at the chance.  The GIS colleague with whom I was most closely working, Kofi, had taken me out a couple of times but he was not much of an explorer.  He would take me to a restaurant (usually Chinese) or maybe go shopping.  Once in the wet season I had persuaded him to take me down the coast but the road was one of those being upgraded by the Chinese and once beyond the city limits we had to traverse many road works, holes in the ground, ruts in the road, and muddy pools of water.  We had gone south about 20 km when the road degraded further, the weather had closed in and we could see only a hundred metres ahead.  It had not been pleasant and Kofi turned the vehicle round and came back.  I think it put him off any idea of exploring with me any further.

I suppose Kofi had been concerned about his car.  He had been given a project vehicle by our employees for the two year duration he was to be resident in Freetown.  It had taken a while to get it to him as it was bought in his home country of Ghana and they had to arrange one of the project drivers to fly to Accra then drive the vehicle back through Ivory Coast and Guinea to Freetown.  This had meant a mountain of paperwork which seems to be an essential requirement in West Africa to cover insurance, passport needs, customs claims and laissiez passer, or a carnet to allow passage.  Kofi was very careful with this vehicle as he knew it would be the only one he was allowed.  Having put up with taxis and drivers for the first couple of months, his freedom from having his own vehicle was therefore immense.  He could choose when he arrived and left the office; he could shop and travel around at the weekend easily.  So he was not keen on taking it out on the open road for a jolly.  Although it could just about cope with the neglected streets of Freetown, it was not rugged enough to cope with the rural routes.

Into the Jungle – Settling in camp

Stephanie was struggling with the rental drivers.  They had used up far more fuel than they expected and needed to get some more.  Since the last filling station was in Kamakwie (on the other side of the Scarcies River), I think the solution was to buy some local expensive fuel from containers.  But we were on a tight schedule.  We had a full day of meetings in several villages in Sierra Leone, followed by more tomorrow before crossing the border in to Guinea on the following day.

A lady brought in from the last village we had seen had been cooking up a dinner of fish and rice, and stashes of bottles held by us travellers were brought out, including Amarula, whisky and a bottle of red wine.  We sat round, phased a little by our long journey but fascinated by where we now were in the midst of the area where the project was acting on the ground – about 350 km north east of Freetown as the crow flies, more like 500km the route we had taken.

We retired relatively early; the camp had no generator so we only had firelight, a couple of lanterns and our own torches or phones to light the world by.  The thunder rumbled around and it poured in the night.  I tried to arrange my stuff as best as possible around the room, the most useful and valuable items in the mosquito netting with me – I was having no false scorpions terrifying me again.

A few pages of book read and I was ready for sleep, and awoke only when the soggy dawn broke.  There was patchy activity in the camp and I saw for real what it was like.  I was in one of four rectangular cabins under the trees and behind me, about 30m away was a long drop toilet.  Across an open grassy area where our vehicles were parked were another series of cabins, this time metal rondavels perched on a bluff above the Little Scarcies River.  In front of my cabins were a couple of picnic tables where we had ate the night before and alongside it our hired cook was back boiling eggs in  a large pot and getting some water under way for us to make coffee – traditional African Nescafe sachets with Nido and St Louis sugar cubes of course.

In the trees off to my left was a large open area surrounded by bamboo benches and tables.  And out beyond the rondavels was our ablution area.  We took a plastic bucket and headed down to the river to wash.  I was content like most to strip to the waist and clean myself as best as possible but one or two dove in the river.  The waste water went into the bushes and I headed back for my boiled eggs.  It was a typical boy scout breakfast, as along with the instant coffee from a big box of sachets, we had white bread, margarine and red jam, flavour indeterminable.  Hugo had found some ripe mangoes at last at one of the last villages on the other side of the river and we all had a juicy slice.

On the RMS – Watching the stevedores

Under the bed was a metal box containing a couple of stout lifejackets.  This reminded me that I was told on being shown to the cabin that the safety drill would take place once everyone was aboard.  There were three short blasts across the ships tannoy and I dragged my jacket out and followed people up to the sun lounge at the top of the ship.

Geoff Shallcross, the fantastic purser, warmly welcomed everyone on board.  He and a couple of crew helped explain all the rules about being on board the ship.  The two major fears were fire and water.  Smoking was banned indoors and outdoors there were strict rules on disposing of butt ends.  All too easily the smouldering remains of a cigarette could end up sucked through the air vents into the bowels of the ship.  We had several minutes of fun putting on the lifejackets.  Once you had the knack they were simple but if you misinterpreted the instructions or just started from the wrong angle you could get yourself tied up in knots.  We were also told about what to do if someone was suspected of going overboard.  One simple trick that makes so much sense to me once told was to fling one of the lifebelts over.  Not so much for the casualty, as the ship moves so fast that it is unlikely your aim could be that good in a swell to reach them, but just as a marker.  By the time the ship has slowed, turned and come back the person could have drifted a long way and is unlikely to be spotted in amongst the grey rolling waves, but at least an accompanying bright orange ring might be spotted through binoculars from the bridge.

Having scared us all to death with the safety drill, we were warmly welcomed on board again and told of the schedule for the rest of the day.  As he did so we could hear the anchor being drawn up and we softly glided away from Ascension Island.

For the other two passages to St Helena, Edsel was alongside me.  One time when we boarded at Ascension Island the captain decided to change the order of service.  We were called early to the wharf and were put on board while the cargo was still being loaded and offloaded.  We travelled over in the new launch (which was covered) and, knowing we had a few hours before heading off, I grabbed myself a cup of tea from the sun lounge and headed out forward to watch the stevedoring.

The RMS is a curious shaped ship.  The rear half is for passengers, the front half contains most of the cargo placed within a giant hold between the bridge and the derrick.  The derrick is on a single swivelling pole but there are two cranes attached to this.  On the day I watched only one crane was in operation and it seemed to be that a generous amount of cargo was being taken off to Ascension.  I think it was probably because it was a month since the ship had last visited.  I was interested to see that a pile of containers had been loaded from the wharf into the hold already and that a few items going off had been left till last.

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It was slow progress and I had time to look over to the mass of Ascension Island in the late afternoon sunshine.  I’ve crawled all over the volcanic peaks and valleys of this island and could pick out and name every feature, the towering Green Mountain the most dominating and for once not with its head buried in cloud.  The island looked so quiet and peaceful even now – the activity of the RMS one of the few dynamic events of the month.  The launch was making another trip across with some more passengers.  The barge was heading out with one container to be picked up by the wharf crane.

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The view back to Georgetown

The crew in the hold were preparing to do some lifting and I realised what was left was not the routine containers but delicate items that needed some careful handling.  Crew were positioned all around the hold, one guy nonchalantly dangling his legs over the side of three stacked containers waiting for the process to begin.  A supervisor got everyone positioned and the crane operator moved the crane’s hook over the deck.  A cradle was attached to this hook – a square formation of clips were made by metal poles fixed between the ropes.  A  series of long slings were attached  to each corner of the cradle and it was dropped deep into the hold.  More crew detached the ropes and spread them out across the lower deck and a car was driven from deep within the ship over the ropes.  Reattached to the crane’s hook the car was gently lifted vertically to the main deck then eased out over the edge of the ship.  More ropes attached to the axles were held in place by four people to keep the alignment of the car square and stop it swinging against the swell or wind.  Ever so slowly it was dropped down onto the waiting barge.  The process was repeated for a second car.  Next pallets stacked high with onions, potatoes and rolls of paper were offloaded in nets.

As the last launch arrived with boarding passengers, the two cars were sailed across the wharf and the last two precious items were moved.  From the ship came a small red wooden crate with about ten grey bags in it.  This was the Royal Mail delivered to Ascension from St Helena (and possible further afield), the raison d’être for the ship in the first place.  Considering the size of the ship and all the other activity, this little box of bags looked pretty insignificant.

A second crate was offloaded from the ship, this time it was empty.  With great care several staff packed it with cardboard boxes marked “eggs”.  I assumed this was a delivery of eggs which had come down from the UK by the Airbridge and was intended for use on the ship; after all St Helena did have chickens.

The crate came back over the side of the ship with more care than for the cars and the mail, placed meticulously on the main deck and offloaded an carried below by hand.  Then, the tidying commenced.  The crew on deck gathered up all the loose ropes and cables and nets, the barge below was let loose from the ship and sailed back to a mooring point in James Bay.  The crane operator took his crane and turned it along the side of the ship facing straight at the bridge.  He then transferred to the other cabin and turned the crane which had been stationary to point towards the prow.  The cranes locked in position by crew at either end of the deck, the operator shut down the machines and descended his ladder to the deck.

I was close by the bridge and I watched the ship’s officers pace up and down.  They could do little till the foreman below had finished his work and tidied up the decks.  Finally the instruction was given and the roof of the hold closed to seal in the containers.  Just one or two containers were left on deck; one a refrigerated unit.

And then we were away.