The west coast of Africa has always been a problem for ships. Most of the coast line is a barrier beach, backed by mangrove swamps, the water itself is fairly shallow offshore and heavy draft boats and ships cannot find a safe haven away from the roar of the Atlantic or the Gulf of Guinea. One exception to this is the estuary on which Freetown, in Sierra Leone, sits. Perched next to the only real mountain range that comes close to the sea in West Africa, the shelf drops steeply into the water and allowing a sheltered, deep water, unsilted harbour that was the envy of many colonial powers for years.
The city of Freetown grew up on the steep sides of these mountains; I suppose to afford fresher air and fewer insects than in the swamps on the north side of the harbour, but it meant that there is little flat ground in the city and it is isolated from the rest of the country by being at the end of a peninsula.
The huge inlet on which Freetown sits
An advantageous harbour was a key concern for colonial powers up to the beginning of the 20th century but many a country has suffered as changing times means that an airport and access to a country’s interior is more important than ocean frontage and clean air. Freetown was left with a dilemma. The first problem is that there is only one main highway out of the city to the rest of Sierra Leone; which is heavily built up, industrialised and populated with hawkers and bus queues and not really functioning as a trunk road. Indeed you have to drive for nearly 50km before you reach the next junction that can spread the traffic out.
The other problem was where to site an airport. There is no drained flat land on the Freetown side of this huge estuary. Also, many international airports in countries I have visited seem to be at the far end of a country from where the majority of the population lives – Hewanorra in St Lucia or Plaisance in Mauritius for example. I’ve never been able to trace the history of Sierra Leone’s airport but I imagine there was a similar policy here – keep potentially useful military assets away from prying eyes.
The result is that Sierra Leone’s main airport is just south of the seaside town of Lungi, on the north side of this wonderful sheltered haven for boats, this massive estuary. Most of the airline passengers will want to go to Freetown on the southern shore. In the Middle East, Asia, North America or parts of Europe, a huge bridge would now span with an expressway and rail link. But this is one of the poorest countries in Africa and instead people need ferrying across by other means.
Every day the entertainment staff would leave a few documents on our desk in a glossy folder. There would be the ship’s news telling us of the order of the day, times of meals and entertainments and when different facilities would be opened and closed; the gym, the laundry, the bar. There would also be information of which table I might be invited onto for dinner. There were three class of cabins on board. The luxury or B deck, the standard or A deck where I was resting, and the economy or C deck down amongst the galley and dining room. Depending on how much you were paying it seemed, you would be invited to sit at one of the officer’s or maybe, the captain’s table. Otherwise you just came in and found a gap on one of the other tables. If the ship were busy there would be two sittings. But whatever, you were not allowed in the room till the call was given over the tannoy. This is an annoyingly catchy tunelet, somewhere between “Come to the cookhouse door” and Lily Bolero. Over the days on board you almost hang around the speakers like Pavlov’s Dogs waiting for the call. I would tend to get changed and head over to the bar for a quick beer. On the first ever night I looked at the prospect of being all at sea, miles from coast. As the stewards went round the lounge and closed the curtains, I appreciated that the best way to deal with all that ocean was to shut it out and get comfort for being in a warm, cosy room with lots of easy chairs, bright orange and red decor all round me and the idle chit chat of people in transit. Don’t worry that there are thousands of metres of water below you, and no chance of survival if something went wrong.
On board the RMS
When the jingle sounds it is down to the belly of the ship to fill your own belly. After the austerity of Ascension Island it was a treat to open the blue mock leather menus. Three weeks of chips and burgers and pizzas, the odd roast dinner and lots and lots of tuna fish cakes, it was a pleasure to see soup and salad starters, a choice of main courses longer than three options, and a range of delicious cakes and desserts, biscuits and cheese. All served as professionally as in a good restaurant back home. And washed down with a wine or a beer. And with conversation thrown in. It was a little bit of a shock for a development worker like myself, more used to sidling into a cheap restaurant or sit silently in a hotel bar and wolf down your meal as quickly as possible before getting too drunk to find your way back to your hotel room.
Three courses of lovely food later, I would head back up to the main lounge where coffee was served by white gloved stewards, and I went for a digestif from the bar. On my first night I met the Government of St Helena’s lawyer, and he introduced me to the delights of port and brandy. I love a good port, having been introduced to it in my university days on a trip to northern Portugal. Brandy I can take a few and I love it in Christmas Fayre, but never become a connoisseur. Put together I found a deep smooth drink with a rich sweet flavour, texture and colour. And what is more, it warmed the innards so wonderfully that even if there is no medical proof that it does you good, it felt like it settled a full stomach.