Although it was nearly dark, I was aware I had entered a new area. The river separated us from the rest of Sierra Leone. The language was different, not just the local language of Susu instead of Temne, but the second language was as often French as English. We were not heading towards an international boundary, we were at a frontier, where the associations and allegiances were blurred and unimportant.
The other change was the forest was thicker, healthier and less often disturbed. We drove for nearly another hour, then turned off the main road to Guinea and went through even darker thicker woodland. We passed through one small village but by now the light was so poor we could discern little. Then we were in true forest and the only way I realised we had arrived was that the track we were driving on was lined by stones. We came to a stop just as I saw a couple of huts, then a clearing and a fire and about half a dozen men in green overalls; park wardens.
Our home for the next couple of nights was the most fantastic location. One of the features of this STEWARD area was a large chunk on the Sierra Leone side was nominally in a national park. Split into two sections, Kilimi in the west and Outamba in the east, they contain some beautiful stands of the remaining forests, the trees had nesting chimpanzees and the rivers were full of hippos. That was before you got to the wide diversity of birds and insects.
I somehow managed to secure one of the cabins, while others were in tents. I felt a bit guilty as I settled into the luxurious cabin; one dark room with a large low bed, hard mattress and lots of blankets under a swathe of mosquito netting.
Bed for the night
We headed along the track further east, meeting up with the route I did from le Petrin. But we decided we did not want to walk on the road, so again cut through the forest. Forests often disorientate, and plantations are the worse. Where you think those straight tracks would be easy to orientate, you often find they come to dead ends or are impassable due to waterlogging or fallen branches. Worse still you think you are heading in a certain direction but imperceptible bends confuse your sense of direction. A combination of a few of these small changes, and then coming to a junction where you fatally turn left instead of continuing straight on can take you miles from your intended destination. We saw evidence that others had been through this way, but not human. Along the side of many tracks were extensive excavation of the surface. It was not as if someone had scuffed their shoes on the soil, it was almost like trenches were being dug to improve the drainage either side of the pathway. But if they were trenches they were being placed in the most bizarre locations and they stopped as abruptly as they started. Added to that the soil was scattered all over the place. It eventually dawned on me that a hog had made these tracks. I had heard that some wild boar still existed in Mauritius. Introduced as a game meat they had been hunted in Black River for many years. Now that Black River was a protected area, a national park no less, the boar were able to roam free from any predators. But their impact was heavy – they grubbed up soil everywhere, demolished small shrubs and, so I heard, were quite scary if confronted when they were with young. We did not see any although sometimes we heard noises off in the forest that our imaginations decided could have been a pack of boar.
The light plays
The weather was dull and the forest muffled noises and helped to disorientate ourselves. We occasionally could hear a vehicle, but since two roads were in this area, one to the east and another to the south, it was difficult to determine from which the sound was coming. It did not help the southern road was not straight, and we actually emerged on to it much further to the east than where we wanted to.
It meant we had to dodge the traffic – although light it did increase as the morning went on. The forest thins up here to a wild moorland, predominantly of this red guava tree. We did find a track that was parallel to the road and were able to enjoy a more civilised walk for a while. In theory we should have been getting epic views over the south of the island now, but the cloud base was low and a mist had formed below it. When we finally reached the best view point in the whole park, the sun had started to burn away the morning cloud.
The area now known as the “Coastal Zone” was until recently referred to as the Crown Wastelands. The environment close to the coast was the most fragile – salt laden winds precluded fast growing plants and there were hardly any trees in this area, just a few stunted examples cowering in any nook in the hillsides. A series of delicate ecosystems found their niches in different places, and I shall mention a few later.
The Crown Wastelands
When people came to St Helena, though, they started to exploit the resources and did not see the consequences. They wiped out the endemic plantations in the uplands but at least the new vegetation was healthy and productive. But letting goats loose on the lowlands meant that they devastated so much of this area. Rebecca had negotiated hard to establish a forest on some of this land where historically the gumwoods might have grown, but the goats had cleared all the other understory, causing devastating soil erosion in the east of the island in particular and the gumwoods must have declined as a result.
So thousands of seedlings carefully propagated over in the Scotland district had been brought over to the site in the east and planted out as naturally as possible. It was called the Millennium Forest and when I visited there was an area close to the car park that was already starting to mature. The trees were only shoulder height at best but they were healthy looking trees. Beyond this area there were smaller plants and there was a continuous programme to extend the trees further into the wastelands.
It was an ambitious plan and had caused some criticism that it was doomed to failure. But although embryonic, the evidence was there that a sustainable forest was being grown. In amongst the more mature trees that had been in place for ten years, little saplings were struggling to establish… self seeded.
My first gumwood planting
The forest maturing
Turning the Orange wasteland green
Self seeding – the ultimate goal of the forest