Days and Nights of Freetown – Searching out the museum

Jan and I had one further excursion.  As well as the cannons and old buildings, he’d also located another piece of colonial anachronism that existed down near the docks on the east side of the city.  Someone had established a railway museum and obtained various artefacts from many different sources.  The national railway system closed down in 1975 and, apart from the evidence of some tracks in places, Sierra Leone had become a rail free country until the Chinese started to build lines into the interior again in recent years to transport high grade iron ore down to the ocean.

The collection of locos and other railway jumble were hidden away for many years during the civil war, but once peace had been re-established, news of this amazing piece of industrial archaeology came to light to one of the peacekeepers form the UK army.  He spearheaded the efforts to raise funds and first preserve the collection then restore and rehouse the amazing set of engines.  Using various tourist guidebooks, I steered Jan through the streets of central Freetown on a Saturday morning.  Even now the place was heaving as people shopped in the early cool air.  Every inch of the main streets seemed to be taken up with hawkers selling clothes, mobile phone covers, vegetables and fruit, newspapers, CDs and videos.  The traffic was moving, yes, buy only at a few miles an hour every minute or two.  It did eventually thin out a little on the east side of town and just where the main road out into the rest of the country was heading out to the south at a roundabout, we veered off into an industrial area on a small stump of a peninsula called Cline Town. Although there were still some residential blocks, compounds and the odd informal cluster of shelters, the area was more full of workshops and warehouses, and at the far end several large gates heading to wharfs.  The instructions from the guides were vague and we had circled a couple of streets several times before we finally spotted a small sign against a warehouse.  There is was, but it was shut, despite the guide informing us of the opening hours.


The Cotton Tree in central Freetown – looking a little worse for wear

Big disappointment as crawling over old railway engines is a good distraction for me but we still had a few hours to spare so Jan asked me where else I might like to go.  I was happy to explore anywhere so he told me of a couple of places out east that he would like to see.  One was the report that a bridge over a river had collapsed and nearby there was a community making charcoal that Jan had visited once before and he had promised to take them some of his pictures.

Into the Jungle – Speeding into the interior

While we had been coming along the peninsula the wide mangrove swamps of the Freetown harbour lay flat to our left and you could see why no-one had every driven a shorter route from Lungi Airport through here, it was a quagmire of channels and thick vegetation.

Beyond Waterloo the scenery changed.. For one thing there were far fewer people and vehicles here, and our speed on this graded road increased dramatically.  Second we were going through gently undulating countryside now that was peppered with palm trees.  I had a few discussions with my fellow travellers about these but could never work out whether these were stands of native palms or the remnants of some old plantations.  They certainly looked quite well ordered, but did palm trees always grow like this in the wild?  Most of my memories of palms were fringing tropical islands or mixed in amongst scrub.  Here they were the dominant tree rising high above the other species and often well spaced apart.

We dropped down to a large river crossed by a single lane metal bridge.  It was more by luck that we did not get stuck with a lorry coming the other way, but while we waited for one or two cars to cross from the other direction, a series of wise hawkers tried to sell us groundnuts , bananas and unripe mangoes.

We reached a check point but were waived through quickly.  Sierra Leone certainly seemed more relaxed out here in the countryside.  It had been over ten years since the civil war, and some wounds were being healed.  However, it was obvious from the number of limbs missing of people that others would never be forgotten.


Materials for the new chinese railway

We passed a couple of main roads heading off to other parts of the country; one to Bo, the second city of Sierra Leone, then we turned off ourselves from the main road to Conakry in Guinea and headed eastwards.


The landscape started to change again; the palm trees thinned out, there were wider open plains mostly grazed, punctuated by dense stands of forest usually surrounding villages.  These were both the fruit trees that people prized – mainly mangoes, but in some places they were sacred groves.  An offshoot of having a place for spirits, burial sites and the like was that the vegetation cover was so much more highly prized.

We passed the first mining town we had seen.  Lunsar.  A new railway had been constructed, again by the Chinese, to access a mine deep in the interior of the country.  It was carefully graded and had heavy engineering to keep the worst of the tropical downpours from undermining the line.  Brand new, it cut a red scar through the landscape as it ran parallel to the main road.