Into The Jungle – The journey commences

So we had a day or two of meetings in Freetown and at the STEWARD office in a pleasant villa perched high above the city.  The house was on two levels; most of the offices were upstairs along with a kitchen, a small study/library area and a large meeting room with a huge wooden table in it.  Downstairs was a simple entrance; on one side a reception area and on the other some steps down to the former garage, now converted into an office space, which Kofi and I were to use.  I was interested to see that a rather grand chair and large pristine desk had been placed in it just for my use – considering I was going to be only visiting for about 12 weeks out of the next 18 months, it seemed like an excess but it was on offer so I did not refuse.  The echo was bad in here and Kofi liked to keep the AC on ice cold, so when he spoke to me in his thick Ghanaian accent it often took me a couple of times to comprehend what he was saying.

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Kofi at the office

We obtained a pile of Leones for travel – dollars not often used out in the villages.  The exchange rate for Leone was about 4500 to the dollar.  A ten thousand Leone note was the largest denomination; just over 2 dollars.  So you can imagine for a week’s trip you ended up with a lot of currency.  Many people just carried it around in black plastic bags.  I split mine up all over my person and locked baggage and hoped I could account for it all by the end of the trip.  I was fortunate that since Kofi was living there that he could sub me if I was short, and he quite appreciated having the dollars in return as he could make use of them when he was travelling, and it saved me going through various methods, legal and illegal, to obtain local money.

Stephanie urged us to be checked out the Hill Valley early so Hugo and I spent a late evening sorting our bills out.  We had a reasonable breakfast and were all ready to go at 8am.  Nothing turned up.  At 8.15 we phoned Stephanie; she wondered why we had not been collected by one of the rental drives.  A few phone calls and half an hour later, Stephanie and Annie turned up with Haba in the STEWARD vehicle.  The rental driver had got lost and could not find the Hill Valley Hotel; one of the most prominent hotels in western Freetown.  We had not started and we had lost almost an hour.

We were driven not through Freetown but up the hill past the presidential palace and the US embassy to a filling station high in the hills.  Everyone else was already at this rendezvous point and we spent a few moments rejigging some of the luggage (ensuring that whichever vehicle you were in you had your own luggage in case we got separated).

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All together at last and ready to roll

Into the Jungle – Lengthy Logistics

That environment, as I was soon to discover was incredible, full of surprises, and, most of all, very remote.  I had timed a three week visit with that of the USFS and many other partners, who were there to travel around the priority zones and learn what had happened in recent years.  STEWARD had been going for several years already and many prototype activities had occurred.  This current phase was a big extension.  A couple of USAID personnel from their Accra office had also turned up, and some people from the US Geological Survey who were conducting a huge mapping exercise across west Africa to look at land cover.

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USGS maps

The idea was we had a couple of days in Freetown to arrange logistics and have some start up meetings, in particular with CARE International who operated many projects in the area we were to traverse.  Then we would go in a convoy of four vehicles to Makeni in central Sierra Leone for a meeting with another project funded by the World Bank that was working in the area, then head north to the zone itself.

The logistics would have been difficult even if we had been a small party, but there were about twenty people involved in this trip, and we were not all staying together.  Hugo had to return to the UK early, so would only be with us about 3 days on the Sierra Leone side.  One of the USGS guys and myself and my new found Thomson Reuters colleague, Kofi, were to travel back to Freetown a day later after having made a short trip onto the Guinea side.  Then the others were going to travel the length of Guinea to the other area before driving down to Monrovia and flying out from Liberia.

A whole load of issues came up; the main one for me being that my VisitSierraLeone visa was a single entry one; if I got in to Guinea and then attempted to re-enter Sierra Leone it would be probable that it would be refused.  Others had no Guinea visas; so one of the office staff spent the next day or two at various embassies around Freetown trying to get the right stamps.

The project currently had only one up country vehicle, so three others had to be hired from a local firm, along with drivers.  The two USFS staff temporarily running the project – Stephanie and Annie, had to arrange a lot of the fuel, water, food and currency, as well as the documentation to allow vehicles across all the borders.  I was glad to be treated like a VIP guest and they just had to tell me when to be where and what to bring.