Days and Nights of Freetown – A visit to Kent

We passed on south through a couple more villages.  Many of the settlements on the peninsula had curiously colonial hark back names.  They would have been predominantly Krio cultures, the people descendants of the freed slaves.  They had brought back place names from their colonial masters like York, Sussex, Aberdeen, Lumley, Waterloo, Hastings and , at the end of the peninsula, Kent.

It was to Kent we made our way.  We again dropped off the main highway where it started to turn to the east but this time the village was a few kilometres away and we had to go through Bureh Town and past another gorgeous beach to reach the very tip of the peninsula.  The main residential area of Kent was along a few streets at the east end of the village but the centre and focus for activity was right at the end of the road near where the coast turns right angles.  We were charged for parking – the villagers here obviously a bit more savvy about tourist trade than others.  And as soon as we started to explore we were accosted by various people. They were all friendly and wanted to show us their village which they believed to be the most important part of Sierra Leone.

We made our own way down to the beach at the Freetown end of the village.  The sand was golden here and we got a good sweep back up to the mountains.  Steering clear of the people playing ball games on the beach, we clambered around the rocky coastline and I came across a wonderful little harbour.  The rocks opened up at one point and sheltered a long narrow deep cove filled with sizeable fishing boats.  I stared out to sea.  I was on a corner of Africa here, a place where the west coast of Africa turns into the Gulf Of Guinea.  To the south of me was nothing but ocean for thousands of miles to Antarctica.  Except of course that about a thousand miles south of here was Ascension Island.  Sometimes I am amazed at how interconnected my travels become even though the routes to get to them are contorted by time and logistics.

Into the Jungle – The best of ports, the worst of airports

The west coast of Africa has always been a problem for ships.  Most of the coast line is a barrier beach, backed by mangrove swamps, the water itself is fairly shallow offshore and heavy draft boats and ships cannot find a safe haven away from the roar of the Atlantic or the Gulf of Guinea.  One exception to this is the estuary on which Freetown, in Sierra Leone, sits.  Perched next to the only real mountain range that comes close to the sea in West Africa, the shelf drops steeply into the water and allowing a sheltered, deep water, unsilted harbour that was the envy of many colonial powers for years.

The city of Freetown grew up on the steep sides of these mountains; I suppose to afford fresher air and fewer insects than in the swamps on the north side of the harbour, but it meant that there is little flat ground in the city and it is isolated from the rest of the country by being at the end of a peninsula.

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The huge inlet on which Freetown sits

An advantageous harbour was a key concern for colonial powers up to the beginning of the 20th century but many a country has suffered as changing times means that an airport and access to a country’s interior is more important than ocean frontage and clean air.  Freetown was left with a dilemma.  The first problem is that there is only one main highway out of the city to the rest of Sierra Leone; which is heavily built up, industrialised and populated with hawkers and bus queues and not really functioning as a trunk road.  Indeed you have to drive for nearly 50km before you reach the next junction that can spread the traffic out.

The other problem was where to site an airport.   There is no drained flat land on the Freetown side of this huge estuary.  Also, many international airports in countries I have visited seem to be at the far end of a country from where the majority of the population lives – Hewanorra in St Lucia or Plaisance in Mauritius for example.  I’ve never been able to trace the history of Sierra Leone’s airport but I imagine there was a similar policy here – keep potentially useful military assets away from prying eyes.

The result is that Sierra Leone’s main airport is just south of the seaside town of Lungi, on the north side of this wonderful sheltered haven for boats, this massive estuary.  Most of the airline passengers will want to go to Freetown on the southern shore.  In the Middle East, Asia, North America or parts of Europe, a huge bridge would now span with an expressway and rail link. But this is one of the poorest countries in Africa and instead people need ferrying across by other means.