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
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 first vehicle heads over
The villagers continue their cleaning
The ferry returns
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.
I said earlier there was only one main road out of Freetown to the rest of the country and it often was clogged up with traffic. This is true, but there were two alternative routes – a very circuitous route right round the coast, on a difficult road, or a mountain track that we were about to take. It started out as a normal two lane highway, then became a single track tarmacced road, with a few potholes. Then it became a muddy track, and the four vehicles struggled along the road for the best part of an hour.
The track was made worse by the improvements being made to it. I know, sounds perverse, but let me explain. The government had finally woken up to the severe limitations of depending on one road in and out of Freetown, as well as all the congestion in town. The Chinese had been contracted in to make a series of dual carriageways around the city. These were slowly making progress – on my first visit people were very proud of the half mile stretch near the office. Unfortunate thing was that it took about a minute and a half to drive the whole length of it then you were back to bumping along severely potholed roads. These feeder roads were all to link up to a new highway that would take traffic out of the western suburbs and potentially past the office from the city centre up in to the mountains and then meet the main road at the little town of Hastings at the isthmus of the peninsula.
The construction of the road through the mountains was in its initial stages – in about four or five places deep river gorges were being filled or bridged, and there was a lot of associated traffic churning up the existing road. It was almost impassable even by 4x4s but we struggled through.
Leaving Freetown behind
Haba drove with more skill and speed than the others and kept disappearing into the distance. We regrouped at a filling station in Hastings where this road hit the main road out of town. We seemed to be navigating by filling stations.
For the first time in about five days, we were on good roads. The main highway out of Freetown from Hastings onwards is well graded, well tarmacced with only the occasional surprise deep pothole to buckle your axle on. But for the next ten kilometres or so it still passed through fairly urban ground. The suburbs of Freetown had swamped over old Krio towns and made them busy. The Krio were free African people living around the peninsula, and often still have better education and living standards than the communities in the interior. The houses were larger and in most areas here there was electricity and water supply. It still looked like a jumble of periurban activities from smallholding and goat herding to arc welding and phone card sales.
We passed through the busy town of Waterloo, where the peninsula gives way to the rest of Africa. We stopped a couple of times at the market that sprawled along the length of the main road to pick up bread and a few snacks. I’d bought some fairly expensive maps of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia when I had been in Stanfords in London, and kept looking at them. I wanted to keep them dry in the bush and had them in plastic folders. I had not been so thoughtful in the car to put them away while we were travelling and my water bottle – condensing the humid air around it, managed to soak a hole in my map on the first day!