Living in the Community – The plunder of the forest

In village after village we saw the red crosses and steadily increasing numbers on the houses – I seem to remember it got to over 500. North of Kamakwie it was only a long term plan to widen the road, but instead we got evidence of another change that had occurred since my last visit.  Near the ferry across the Little Scarcies River, there was a massive truck piled high with thick tree trunks.  The driver was being assisted by a couple of others to load more massive timber in the vehicle… he was planning to drive it back towards Freetown that evening.  I’d seen parts of the road had deteriorated even further from what I remember already.  I speculated what more damage this vehicle would do.  I also wondered how these huge trucks got through the occasional drains, or crossed the strange little bridges that were frequent along the northern section of the road.  They were basically a large tube covered in a square of concrete.  I think at one time the top of the block would be level with the road, but the road either side tended to erode away, and vehicles had to bump their way up on to these bridges and bounce down the other side.  Not so bad in a light 4WD but a nightmare for a heavily laden lorry.

These lorries had not been going up and down this route last time I had been here, but the government had reversed a policy that allowed logging concessions in the forest.  This was not good news for our project.  We were trying to find ways to work with the communities to conserve and regenerate the remaining precious Guinea Forest.  Our work was slow and incremental.  Compared to the loggers who came in with their chainsaws and heavy machinery could clear the best and most precious gallery forest for these gigantic logs a million times faster than our efforts to regrow trees.  It was quite depressing to see before we had even reached Fintonia to start out own work.


Sunset on the Scarcies River

It was sunset as we got on the river bank and the serene atmosphere calmed the spirits; we waited for the ferry to come over from the north bank, with a ancient blue tractor aboard.

Into the Jungle – Dash for the plane

Of course despite this final adventure, we were a long way from Freetown.  It took another hour or so to reach Fintonia, where we caught sight of Momoh on his veranda.  He was surprised to see us – he thought that because we had not turned up for lodgings the night before that we had pressed on southwards.  We did not delay now, we had a quiet recrossing of the Kaba River and then settled down to the four hours of bumpy road to Makeni again.  Once on the main road our driver was going a little stir crazy from all the forest driving and events and put his foot down.  We had to remind him to calm down a little and get us back to Freetown alive, as he overtook another cavalcade of lorries and just managed to get back on his own side of the road before being hit by one in the return direction.   He just wanted to come home.  But he made the mistake of taking the main Kissy Road back into the city and we were another hour before I was dropped off at the STEWARD Guest House, to tell tales of daring do and hardship….. and get the laundry done and  nurse the mosquito bites.


Back over the ferry

Into the Jungle – All three in the north

As we crossed I noticed for the first time there was a second higher cable just downriver from us, and I followed it to see a cage on the northern bank.  It turned out that during the height of the wet season, the river current was too fierce for this little ferry and the cage is used to carry essential supplies on this aerial ropeway.  Another five minutes across and our driver powered our car off and up the hill, and we slowly ambled up behind him to join some of our colleagues.  Back went the ferry for the final vehicle.  I wandered first up to the village then back down to the river’s edge, and was aware that the large convoy, almost a traffic jam for Tambakka Chiefdom, had attracted the attention of almost every child from the village.  They both watched the ferry, which they were used to, and the assortment of people in their rich man clothes, about three quarters of them white.  They would quietly stand near us, observing sometimes, but often just finding it a nice new experience to be close to some outsiders.  Once or twice a little discussion would occur amongst them, maybe causing a giggle or a slap, but it was all very dignified.

The whole process to get the three vehicles across took about fifty minutes, including the original trip across to collect us.  Stephanie was still stressed that we had a drive ahead of us but at least our fate was in our own hands and we battled ahead in the near dark. That last hour at the ferry had to be counted as one of those gems of a moment in Africa.

Into the Jungle – Waiting our turn

The cleaners moved aside temporarily as the ferry glided into position against the ramp.  The ferry was powered only by hand, a cable strung across the river was fed through a couple of feeds on the infrastructure of the ferry, and two or three guys would haul the ferry into motion.  Once underway it needed only simple guidance and a light touch once in a while to keep it moving towards the other shore, there being hardly any friction and the cable stopping the craft from escaping downstream.

The ferry itself was made of two metal floats held together by iron girders which in turn were covered by wooden planking.  Four corner girders held the cabling in place.  Heading back and forth twenty times a day had taken its toll on the ends of these planks, and each time the ferry came close to shore, someone had to build a jigsaw of stones and planks to make a suitable runway for the vehicles to board and disembark.  Even with this put in place, it was a skilful job to get on board, it needed enough oomph to step up onto the planking, but not too much to send the ferry scooting back across the river sans cargo.

The ferry could only take one vehicle, and we were three.  Haba went first with the STEWARD vehicle.  Once aboard, the process was peaceful and we spent five minutes watching the ferry glide over to the northern bank.  More time to listen to the bird life along the river, watch the fishermen paddle gently downstream, and eavesdrop on the women chattering and the kids playing around the bowls of clothes on the ramp.  We watched the STEWARD vehicle reach the far side and heard the roar as Haba bounced the car off the planks and thunder up the steep incline to relative flat in the village just in a break in the trees.

Back came the ferry carrying a motorbike and cycle and a couple of foot passengers and we were second on for the northbound service. They teased the ferry with a plank to line it up perfectly with the concrete ramp and on we drove.  I could tell our driver had never boarded a ferry before and although he missed the guiding planks first time, he was quite pleased with himself to be on the ferry second chance.  With no motors gliding across that river was sheer bliss.  The sun had almost set and was firing red tints to the linings of the clouds, and their reflections rippled in the gently moving river. Three guys hauled quite hard on the metal cable to set us running; as I saw them up close I saw one was blind, and the two others would guide his hands to the rope, ensure he would not trap his fingers against the girders, but then he would pull as hard as the rest.

Into the Jungle – Will we make it to the ferry?

It was after five o clock; we had been on the road since 9 with only an hour or so in Makeni and were very tired, but we were still not at our destination.  Worse still we had not reached Kabba Ferry.  But after a couple of hours of village, field, river, rocky hill repeated over and over again, we rose out of one valley and saw a mobile phone mast.  Then a water tower.  The village turned into a town with proper administrative buildings and many more houses constructed from concrete, metal window frames, felt roofs.  This was Kamakwie, the largest town before we entered the Tambakka Chiefdom, our final destination.  Stephanie only stopped to ensure we regrouped.  It was still a bit of  trek to the ferry and Haba headed as fast as he could to head off the ferrymen from leaving their posts.  The rental drivers had become increasingly concerned about the terrain they were in.  I think they were used to the potholes of Freetown, and all the urban problems, but were sorely afraid of the branches, the deep grass covered hollows in the track out of which they thought they would never leave.  Our vehicle too was not in a good state, the transmission seemed dodgy, even on open stretches of track he had trouble accelerating fast, so we dropped further behind Haba.

The light was changing, the clouds had lifted a little and the golden sunlight picked out long shadows of every scrap of grass and tree.  And then all of a sudden we were there, on some concrete dropping steeply to the wide Little Scarcies River.  Haba and the second vehicle were there and our colleagues were all standing around, hands on hips, watching the operation of the ferry.

The ferry was over the other side and they had spotted Haba’s arrival and had started to haul across.  There was no jetty, the concrete just disappeared into the water.  The water level drops and rises considerably from wet to dry season, so the road just had to stretch out as far in to the water as possible.  The villagers on this side of the ferry were using the hard surface to work with the water.   Women were washing their clothes, children were stripped to the waist and rubbing themselves all over with bars of soap.  A bicycle and a motorbike were also being washed down.  You could tell by the wear and tear around the ramp that these activities had been occurring since it had been built.

To one side of us fishing boats were moored on the mud.  Simple dugout canoes but since the trunks they were dug out of were huge, the boat themselves had a capacious capacity.

Into the Jungle – Bumpy Crossing

Very carefully I placed the strap of my laptop around my neck and made sure all the loose change, keys and passport were safely put away and could not fall out of my pockets.  The boardwalk was OK, and our tickets were ripped apart, then we were told to approach the jetty itself one at a time, and walk, as calmly and with as much dignity as you could muster, to the boat to be helped on board.

We were each given orange life jackets that in the humidity were uncomfortable to wear – hard and itchy and making you sweat all the more.  The boat had a plastic awning that you could not have open for fear of being drenched, and the mixture of people, oil and west African humidity gave the space a fairly noxious odour.


Packed into the ferry

Once underway it did improve – yes the noise of engine and waves was deafening but we did get some through flow of salty air.  I was on the ocean side of the boat could not gauge much of our progress until the lights of the city loomed up on the left and we came into a small inlet.  I was glad to see that there was a proper wooden jetty on this side.  My next challenges were to retrieve my luggage and find my lift.  I had tried to text my driver from the airport side but had received no reply.  I need not have worried.  Wearing a USAID t shirt and a trilby hat, there stood Haba, a Guinean man who had settled in Freetown.  And I got my bag back in one piece.

Into the Jungle – Down to the dock

After the scramble to retrieve bags in a hot sweaty baggage hall in the airport, I was searched by customs (but only a cursory inspection inside the suitcase).  As I came out into the open air , I had to avoid all the fake ticket touts and overzealous porters and instead turned right to a small cabin in the corner from where Pelican ran its operations.  Although some of the guys in their red stripy  polo shirts were legitimate employees, I waited till I got to the cabin before obtaining the ticket and passing over the 40 US dollars.  My details were carefully added to the manifest, the ticket issued, and baggage tags handed out.  Although I was in an area separated from the road by a low wall, I still took care to keep an eye on my big red suitcase.  Lungi airport did have a poor reputation for petty theft , it was dark, and above all I wanted to be on the other side of the lagoon as soon as possible and did not want the bag to be left to one side over here.

It took a while and a lot of shouting to organise our transit.  The British Midland flight was turning around to head back to London at midnight, and Pelican were dealing with passengers wishing to be on it as well as taking us over to Freetown.  Our bags were piled into an old transit van and one minibus while we were loaded into a second – one of those where seats folded down across the aisle to pack more of us in.  It was quite a squeeze for hot sweaty me to rest my oversize laptop on my knee while a large lady plonked down beside me.

We turned out of the airport and immediately onto unmetalled roads.  I thought this bizarre – I had heard Sierra Leone was one of the poorest countries in the world, but had expected some level of infrastructure at its main international portal.  The fact was a bumpy tarmacced road headed left down towards the Kissy ferry dock, we were heading to a closer beach from which Pelican operated and it was dirt track all the way.  It was the start of the rainy season and we splashed through the mud and puddles in the middle of a village, from the dark we could see the fires that had just completed the cooking of dinner.  A few pairs of eyes peered out at us as we noisily passed.

We dropped steeply down a small cliff and bumped along by some beach properties before reversing slowly into a sandy car park.  Next to us was a concrete building open on all sides, a small kiosk selling water, sweets and other drinks.  Beyond a low wall was the beach and we could hear rollers crashing in.  I wandered over to a wooden boardwalk that led down to a floating jetty.  This was heaving up and down  n inflated barrels in quite a violent manner.  Out in the roads were a couple of boats, high speed ferries capable of taking about 25 passengers.  And off in the distance, partly shrouded by heavy cloud, I could see the lights of Freetown dotted up the mountain side.

We sat for quite a while, it getting quickly darker as we waited.  Another boat arrived from the Freetown side, disgorging more passengers heading for the BMI flight.  A companion boat followed up with their luggage and there was a long process of manhandling each bag off separately, walk them along the oscillating jetty and into the waiting van in the car park.

It was about an hour after we first arrived here, and nearly three since the plane had landed, and we were called forward.  Each ticket had been numbered in order; and despite some of the employees saying they would get people on the first boat out, there seemed to be little queue jumping going on.  I missed the cut of the first boat by about 3 places, but the second boat was one of the ones that I had seen out in the offing.  It now chugged into place and we were invited to board.

Into the Jungle – Finding a way across the Lagoon

Over the years there have been various methods for doing this.  The slowest would be to travel round the estuary by road, but this would be a trip of over 100km and could take up to 5 or 6 hours.  It meant going north to the main road to Conakry before sweeping round the headwaters of the estuary then approach Freetown from the south east along the peninsula containing its high mountains.

The second slowest would be the car ferry.  A twenty minute drive south from the airport to the tip of the Lungi peninsula followed by a wait for to board an old ferry with every truck, bus, minibus, bicycle and a throng of people on every trip for the hour or so crossing to Kissy.  I never took this one as it would leave me on the wrong side of town for both my work and accommodation in the west of the city, and at most times of the day travelling through central Freetown you were ensured of gridlock.  The potential for delays (and missing flights) and personal security issues made this one for the bold and brave only.

The fastest route at one time would be an incredibly cheap helicopter ride that would make the crossing to the western suburbs of Freetown in around 10 minutes direct from Lungi airfield.  But they were operated by poorly maintained Mil-M8 Russian copters, and the service came to a dramatic halt in 2004 when 22 people were killed at Lungi Airport as one of the craft came in land but crashed instead.

Another alternative had been to take a ropey old hovercraft from the beach near Lungi to the little peninsula at the tip of Freetown, a district called Aberdeen.  One day this sunk midway across the channel and all the passengers were rescued by other craft.

So you can see why I started calling the trip back and forth between Freetown and the airport as “running the gauntlet”.  Fortunately there was one more option which I always took. On some occasions it was a dream, others it seemed a never ending drudge.  But it was a happy compromise between speed and safety and actually deposited me on the right side of town in Aberdeen. This was the Pelican, or Sea Coach Express.


Waiting for our ferry

The Ankle Deep Sea – Finally arrived

The ferry to Rodrigues takes 36 hours from Port Louis to the capital, Port Mathurin and goes a couple of times a week.  The plane takes ninety minutes and with only 50 seats each time there are only three, maybe four flights a day.  Considering these are the links between the two major islands, there is not a huge capacity for movement.  In fact the Rodriguans had long complained about this; there are no other flights from Rodrigues to other destinations.  And the Air Mauritius flight was incredibly expensive for a quick hop.


Arrival in Rodrigues

I landed in blistering heat of mid afternoon at Sir Gaetan Duval Airport at the western tip of the island.  The sun was blinding , the vegetation around me parched, and the peace and quiet audible.  It was the total opposite of the cold, dark, noisy environment of the UK that I had left behind only some eighteen hours before.

Jeremy and Mike were there.  They allowed me a cursory summary of my week in the north and the problems at Plaisance Airport, before spieling out their assessment of the island, the characters they had met and what our job was for the next five days.

Given it was Saturday, the island was almost deserted; we saw a few bodies under the shade of the few trees in back yards, the periodic vehicle heading along the road.  We took a circuitous route to our hotel, along the northern coast road, and the two of them pointed out various features.  We passed through the centre of Port Mathurin, almost deserted, and then drove over a big hill to the eastern flank of the island.  Livestock grazing is a massive part of Rodrigues life so, unlike the dense plantation fields of Mauritius, much of the island was taken up with huge open grasslands. Due to an ongoing drought the land was devoid of anything but the most hardy shrubs.  We descended towards the coast to a remarkable bay, the white sand fringed by palm trees and perfect size waves rolling in from the east.  Along a small sandy track we passed through an open gate in a high stone wall and we were at Cotton Bay Hotel. I was settled in to a first floor room overlooking a beach covered in filao and palm trees.

The Adopted Dog – A day trip to Bequia

Eduardo and I met up with two staff from the Ministry of Planning; Tony Bowman who was the overall project coordinator, and Dornet Hull who was a chief technician, at the ferry dock at the eastern end of the waterfront.  We chugged over on the hourly ferry to Admiralty Bay, chatting about various aspects of the project and life in general.  These field trips are often useful to build the personal relationships with your clients; and this project had struggled for a long time to get through to this stage.  When you are being formal over the phone or by email, it is difficult to understand the context of the people you are meeting, and of course you do not get the visual clues to client’s moods or concerns.  A day in the field away from all the formality of office bric-a-brac helps break down any barriers and explore around the work.

With islanders though, they are often distracted.  Everyone knows everyone else and there was at least three other people that Tony had to talk to while we made the short crossing, which cut up our time to focus together.

On arrival at the small jetty in Admiralty Bay, we were met by a driver from the Ministry of Planning based in a sub-office on Bequia itself.  We were driven all over the island that day, mostly places I had seen on my previous visits, but again with different people and with a different purpose, you saw new perspectives.  We drove into Friendship Bay, the largest settlement on the south coast of the island.  In the two years since I had last been there, I could see how new housing was both infilling in the bay area, and reaching higher into the hills at the back.  Zigzag roads up to each property were cutting into the rock, backhoes were sitting around on roadsides all over town.  We walked over one slope which has been subdivided and now earmarked for development.  The initial clearance of the dry shrub had occurred, but so far this was the extent of any work; indeed the dormant time which is so common in any Caribbean development – whether it be big government projects or small residential builds, had allowed the natural vegetation, or at least the weeds, to cover the ground once more.

We drove up the eastern side of the island, dropping in on Brother King’s turtle hatchery that I had visited a few years previously.  This side of the island at least still looked the same, although Tony pointed out several locations where people had plans, in particular government wanting to subdivided some old palm plantations.

We looked up at the north end of the island above Admiralty Bay.  Here on an exposed ridge were more plans to subdivide.  At the top of a small pinnacle along the ridge was a metal pole with what looked like an oil barrel on it.  I correctly assumed it was a trig point, but boy what a survey mark.  Trig points in many countries are small concrete pyramids that surveyors point their theodolites and rangers at to get a fix on their locations.  This was a big fix – indeed it was an oil drum, turned upside down, cemented on the end of the metal pole and painted white and red.  It was large enough that it could be seen in St Vincent 15 kilometres to the north.  The trig points are meant to be accurate to the centimetre, but I wondered what the accuracy of these posts were; the target was enormous and the pole was at about a ten degree angle from the vertical.  Tony, with his usual phlegmatic “this is how it is in the Caribbean” said that the trig point network in St Vincent was old and not maintained well.  Another problem for us pulling together accurate mapping of the islands.