We said our farewells and sat back in our cruiser. It headed back out and we watched the procession of resort, uninhabited, settled and functional islands. Of the last two I noticed there was an island that was used as the fuel storage depot – nice idea keeping it separate from the heaving metropolis of Male. We passed by one of the resorts you see in all the brochures. A long line of chalets on a pier, everything on stilts so you can sleep above the ocean. Two things would concern me staying there – I’ve never found ocean noises that soothing. I can put up with lap lap lap of gentle waves; it is quite sleep inducing, but everything else, the bird flapping on their roosts, the fish gurgling at the surface and the hiss and froth noises with anything beyond the gentlest of swells have never been calming. I was OK in Tortola where my apartment was 900 ft above the waves, but to be sleeping right on top of it? And second, if you dropped anything down the cracks or over the side of the chalet it would be so much more of a fag going hunting for it amongst the coral than just rootling in the undergrowth. I wondered if they had chalet maids with snorkels for just that possibility.
The boat traffic increased again as we drew closer to Male and we could see the urban skyline grow in front of us. We were earlier than expected as we drew in between the small beacons marking the entrance and once Mohammed had said farewell and headed back to his office, we decided we needed a drink. On the top floor of a nearby building was a large cafe and we headed up there; the air being cooler up there than in the packed streets. Once the menu was put in front of us we realised we were also very hungry, not having eaten at all on Thulusdhoo so we ordered some sandwiches and looked around. I found it bizarre to stare across the channel to the next island and see the huge tailfin of an Emirates Airbus poking up from behind the palm trees as it sat waiting at the airport.
The Airport from the mainland
The more I saw, the more I worked out how you could live on a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of the ocean. Each island seemed to have a function, whether it be nature reserve or fuel depot or airport. The people did not see each coastline as a limit, the shallow seas in between were as much their gardens, their recreation areas, their farmers fields, even their living space, as any piece of dirt.
The West coast of the Freetown Peninsula reminded me of some broad sweeps of coastline in the Caribbean. Against a backdrop of verdant forest clad mountains were a string of fishing villages and long white sandy beaches. Potentially this could be a vital arm in Sierra Leone’s tourist industry but the years of uncertainty during the civil war, and the difficult logistics of getting people from the airport to the resorts down here had stopped any mass expansion. In some ways this was good for those of us who had bothered to make the trip, but some useful potential income sources for the country were being neglected. Most of the people who seemed to use the resorts were the expats and development workers who lived in Freetown. Mingling in amongst the exclusive resorts you might find a huge beach party set up by some church or an impromptu rave on the sand.
Jan turned off the main road and dropped through the village of Tokeh to a tree shaded car park. A series of brush huts informally nestled under the palm trees contained a reception area, a kitchen and bar and laid out along the beach were a series of chalets. Jan and I sauntered over to a low wooden table and lounged around waiting for some drinks. I soaked in the atmosphere. After the hubbub of Freetown to the north of us, this was nirvana. The roaring Atlantic was rolling in to the broad expanse of sand, the sky was blue and the relief of the mountains enclosed this oasis.
A couple of hotel guests were settled on the loungers and hammocks out front, a scattering of kids were playing bat and ball on the sand. As our juices arrived the two of us sat in silence and just let the whole place wash over us. Both of us had had trying and busy weeks at the office. It was good just to rehabilitate in this environment.
The sea was not without interest. A small spit of volcanic rocks broke up the sand and was mirrored by a small rubbly island about 100 metres from the strand. The island was connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway and topped by the most straggly ill looking trees.
To the south, a huge party was already in full swing – it was only 11 am after all – and there were kids frolicking in the water while the heavy beat of dance music spread across the land – maybe it was not quite so idyllic as I thought.
Tokeh – A little slice of paradise on the peninsula
Jan was keen to look around these resorts as he was thinking of where he might spend his Easter weekend. We took a look in one of the cabins – it was Spartan but comfortable. He asked for a price list and we headed back to his truck. I noticed in the corner of the car park that there was a rusty piece of red metal. On closer inspection I realised it was a very old British post box, its door missing and its body etched away by salt air but otherwise intact.
The resorts along the Morne’s beaches varied in levels of taste and subtlety. Although many were very discerning resorts with flawlessly clipped vegetation and newly painted infrastructure, others were in a state of flux. One resort had been used as a tax dodge, seemingly, and embroiled in arguments over which source of foreign funding was to be used to refurbish it. As a result a string of half completed chalets littered the beach, and because there was no activity, the beach was being eroded severely. Part of our role was to identify bad practice in beachside development. One of the worst transgressions was the construction of solid concrete jetties and ramps. Sand naturally is circulated around coastal systems, either within lagoons, out to offshore sandbanks and back or with longshore drift. These flows are often not permanent, but cyclical according to seasonal affects such as tidal ranges or prevalent currents during different times of the year. To restrict the flow with one of these solid structures is to both cause enhanced deposition and erosion. It disrupts the sandflows to your neighbours’ beaches, and can eventually mean costly coastal defence measures are needed to be put in place. These jetties and ramps can be easily built ensuring a gap below them to allow the flow of sand, and actually look much more aesthetically pleasing to the tourist eye.
Not your idea of a luxury resort
More of a tax dodge
but spoiling an iconic view
We made fast progress on our walk; compared to the terrain of the south coast this was a doddle. Only in one place were we nearly scuppered. We kept to the beach as much as possible and had been suspiciously watched by resort security guards and some hotel staff (although many were very pleasant and said hello – they might have even offered us a drink if they thought we had any money on us), but at one place the beach was broken in two by a channel. A hotel had built a small marina and an artificial lake in a golf course emptied into it. The channel was deep enough for sizeable sea going cruisers, so we could not wade across to the beach on the other side. We traced the stone wall lining the channel to the road bridge near the golf course. As we tried to regain the beach we were almost instantly approached to a security guard. He told us that we were on private property. We tried to make out that we were on the beach (we were still standing on the stone wall and not the neatly clipped grass). He smiled in the way that shows he knows how pathetic you are being, and said that we were in private property. So we tried another tack, to point out how the hotel had restricted access to the beach by driving a deep channel through the sand, and were we expected to wade through that? Again by the look on the face, he definitely thought that was the logical course of action. So we tried our final card, that we were doing a survey on behalf of the government. Eventually an uneasy truce was reached, we promised we were just passing through, he hesitated and before he could change his mind we headed back to the beach through the resort. I was glad we did, as there were several features along this stretch , groynes protecting water sports areas for examples, that I was keen to take a closer look at. This little peninsula at the head of the Morne was dominated by this most exclusive of all resorts, and we were definitely perceived as riff raff by the staff, let alone the owners or residents. Well appointed chalets littered the beach front, the sports facilities were unequalled but hardly used, there must have been one staff to every two guests. A night here would be 250 pounds a day, no doubt, and that would be just for the room.
Heavily altered beachlines
And if you step on this bridge… you are trespassing
We skirted the interior of this little peninsula next to the back nine of the golf course and headed back to the real world along the short stretch of coast back to the main road. We saw little apart from a few fishermen angling off the rocks.
The twelve kilometre stretch of coastline was the easiest of the lot to walk – even where the few Pas Geometriques villas touched the shoreline the beach was wide enough or the rocks were flat enough to traverse quickly. Apart from picking up the freshwater springs along the beach, and a couple of bad planning decisions to put hotels right next to eroding areas of sand, there was little to record and it turned into a nice day for a long walk and chat to Jeremy. We must have looked strange to the tourists. Italians seems to favour this stretch of coastline in particular and both the women in string bikinis, the men in Speedos, both sexes holding garish drinks garnished with every type of fruit and vegetable, and happily shouting, singing, dancing or basting in sun oil, they would stare at these two English men in their baggy short sleeve shirts and baggier shorts, both grubby from days of walking in the heat, carrying clipboards and what must looked like oversize mobile phones (GPS). What was more our behaviour just did not fit in with the relaxed and informal atmosphere of these places; we would ignore the palm trees, the bars, the swimming pools, we would walk up to bits of low wall and stare at the cracks; we would stoop down at the water’s edge and…. did he really just dab his finger in the sea and lick it? For some reason no-one dared ask us what we were up to, or whether we had legitimate business at the resort.
Erosion near the hotels
The locals were even less interested in us; occasionally one would watch us, most greeted us as we walked past but hey ho, just eccentric Englishmen – better not engage as you might end up with more than you bargained for.
As it was a week day when we walked the beach, the many stretches of public beach were all but deserted. Once or twice you may find a dog walker, some locals would have parked their cycles next to a filao tree and were standing knee deep in the lagoon with long fishing rods, but for the most part we would walk along this picturesque coastscape of filao trees and grassy banks, black rocks, white sand, an ever present wind on our backs and the swirl of waves breaking continuously along the reef and beach.