The pathway was a very sensible one, in fact. It worked its way through the lowest point in the Kuru Hills around here and kept in the shade, for humans much more useful than being out in the open and having the burden to climb extra altitude. For us it was nothing short of frustrating. There was not even a good view on the west side through those trees. We stopped just where the trail dropped steeply away again and again all we had in front of us was the canopy of some very large trees. We decided to have some lunch before we headed back. We had carried up some baguettes we had bought from a local shop in Fintonia, and was using up a couple of tins of corned beef and tuna from Freetown; we had also purchased some tomatoes from a woman on the road side. With our drinks it was a humble but enjoyable meal – made wonderful by being immersed in the forest and the feat of the climb.
We stumbled our way back down the pathway; apart from the noise of the chimps, we had seen little wildlife. It is often the way when you walk about in the middle of the day. I’d observed hundreds of different plants, and marvelled at the huge buttress trees that clung to the sides of the escarpment, some with knobbly spines, others with silky smooth bark.
We parked the car under some shady trees in the village of Moria which, although it was probably not known to Tolkien, did have a sort of Middle Earth air about it (acknowledged it was not subterranean). It made Fintonia look like a metropolis. It was a group of a hundred or so huts in amongst the trees; there was no real centre. Where the road stopped was at the edge of the village and to reach our path up in to the hills we had to navigate through a series of people’s backyards. It was already mid morning and many villagers were in their fields or away on errands. A few young mothers were cleaning up their houses, sitting chatting in the shade of their compounds. A couple of very old men were sat in wooden chairs on their porches, mostly oblivious to the world around them and certainly to this foreign party passing through.
We started to climb through some fields behind the village but as the gradient got steeper the cultivation stopped and we were in the usual scrubby woodland of all this area. It was a glorious sunny day and the climb was hard work for all of us. We would get glimpses of the escarpment ahead and I wondered just where this path made the ascent to get us to the top. These mesas are common in this part of the world. The Guinea Highlands are a series of plateaus in the interior of west Africa and form a continuous belt separated from the coastal lands by almost sheer cliffs. In the coastal plain itself there are vestigial pieces of these highlands standing proud above the plain. The Kuru Hills is an example of this. On a map it appears like a pick axe with a swollen head at the northern end and a long shaft heading southwards. We were climbing the handle. Our purpose in exerting so much energy was to see what was on top of these mesas. Being elevated, they had markedly different vegetation from the rest of the region. Just what that vegetation looked like was difficult to determine from the satellite imagery. All we saw was more green colours reflecting back, and much of it uniform. That told us that much of the area had much higher rainfall than the surrounds which may have extended into the dry season, keeping the vegetation in leaf much longer but whether this was forest or grassland was difficult to spot from the imagery we had to hand.
So up we went, and the walk helped to identify layers of vegetation at different altitudes too. From the scrub forest we passed another of the small rubber plantations. Gray had read that the British had experimented with rubber in Sierra Leone. It had never really caught on but these old plantations still existed. It looked like the locals did not tap the sap here, but did use the trees for timber and fuel. Beyond the rubber the undergrowth got very tangled and dense and we could not see far as we plodded up the steep path. The lack of air circulation made us intolerably sweaty and overheated. It was too much for Kofi. I’d always been amazed how this slight, urban man from Ghana had coped with the village work out here in the most remote parts of Sierra Leone, but cope he did. Although never looking like he was enjoying the experiences of mosquitoes and mud and scratching seeds and grasses, sweat and humidity, he never moaned, and usually had this impassive tolerant air about him. But on this slope he was defeated. His reasoning was he saw no reason to kill himself trying to get to the top of the hill. He said he would head back to the village.