Beating off the waves – Exploring Male

At first Male does not seem to change as you walk through, it is a relentless sequence of streets full of small businesses; offices, shops, workshops or restaurants and cafes, but gradually you see the different things and the subtle differences.  I started coming across small squares in amongst the high rises, maybe with a banana plant or a palm tree.  There might be a playground set in some trees, or a temple set back from the pavement.

It never took long , though to reach the coast again.  On the south side of the island, the wave action was stronger and most of the coastline was protected by huge concrete structures, tetrapods, that reminded me of the jacks in the game of the same name.  Their angular protrusions broke up the wave energy more effectively than a solid wall, but it really makes Male look like a fortress.  They rise higher than the level of the promenade and you can barely see the ocean beyond.  However, if I stood on one of the concrete benches along the harbourside, I could see the next set of islands in the distance, the Male South Atoll, and the little pinprick of streetlights showed me they were inhabited.

I wondered where the boats got out of this harbour; these tetrapods right along this coast.  Looking later on Google Earth I realised the nearest breach was nearly a mile to the west near where my office was.  Any boats at this end would have to weave between countless other vessels before even reaching the open sea.


Tetrapods beating off the waves


Days and Nights of Freetown – New Road

Jan had no fear and also a much stronger 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser.  He had been running around the back streets of Freetown looking out for historical artefacts.  Freetown was at the head of a peninsula that always feels separated from the rest of Sierra Leone.  It was the gateway to a large part of west Africa, having the best deep water harbour along a stretch of the Atlantic Coast from Nigeria to Morocco.  The original inhabitants of the peninsula were the Koya Temne and the Krio that now dominated culture and ethnicity there were descendants of freed slaves that had been given the land “forever” by the local tribes.  Hence the name Freetown.  The British could not keep their hands off the region though and used Freetown as a base for their trading.  The usual trappings of colonialization were set up; not just the old warehouses and substantial merchants buildings in the centre of the old city, but fortifications on the many hillsides to protect this fortuitous location.

Jan had scoured old documents and maps and found that several of the cannons still existed across the city and had spent some weekends looking for them.  He had also visited the oldest school in west Africa, and gone searching for other historical colonial artefacts.

Jan and I made a couple of other excursions down the peninsula.  One day we drove down to the point where Kofi had turned back and Jan gingerly dropped down this potholed but once tarmacced road.  The road, flanked by thick vegetation turned to the right onto a badly maintained concrete bridge across a river.  The potholed highway continued up the other valleyside and then … bump bump…  you were up onto a smooth well maintained bit of metalling.  Kofi and I had turned back less than half a kilometre from where the good road started.  The chaos of the road out of Freetown was all down to the construction from the Chinese who decided to tear up the whole countryside one time before laying a road, as opposed to progressively rolling out a finished product.  To the north of us was thirty miles of dust and mud.


Time to get on the road

Living in the Community – A new road

Compared to my previous journey to Fintonia, we had a very simple trip.  It had only been eight months since I had last been in the area but I was shocked at the changes.  Somehow you believe these rural areas of Africa never change but here was the evidence against it.  A new road was being created “for development” through to the regional town in the north,  Kamakwie.  On the long drive from the central town of Makeni, we saw where clearance of the bush had already taken place; usually along the course of the old road.  Our road passed through countless villages, which had weatherworn but solid houses with verandahs, and many villages had thriving communities and resources; the water pumps were along the road, there were community centres, mosques and churches, many little stores.  But the plan seemed to be to drive the road through the centre of these villages instead of making bypasses.  They were condemning every house in its path; portentous red crosses marked the ones to be destroyed; and ominous numbers which gradually increased from the Makeni end of the new road.  It was astonishing that anyone was contemplating ripping apart these communities for the sake of the people travelling through.  How long these villages had stood here I could only guess at – certainly the houses looked 40,50 ,60 years old, maybe some were older; and maybe they were built on previous structures that had stood there much longer.  How come they would destroy this?  Why not bend the road around one side of a village or the other.  The only downside to my solution seemed to be that some good farmland would be lost, but the alternative was that the village would be permanently split in two or completely relocated.  I’d seen the results of the first on the highways closer to Freetown.  Four Wheel Drives and heavy trucks screamed along these tarred roads and residents took their lives in their own hands every time they tried to get from one side to the other.  And their livestock often did not make it at all.  What it did for human health living next to all the fumes was not worth thinking about.  To relocate, though, was to lose the benefits of the existing location.  These villages were often chosen as they were near a good source of water, the soils were better around them (indeed had been improved by years of cultivation) and they were probably situated so the worst of the rainy season was avoided.  What would the new locations be like?


On the road north

Into the Jungle – The long road north

It was well after 2pm when we left Makeni.  We initially travelled over tarmac road again but on the edge of the town we turned off, across the new railway and onto a wide dirt road.  And now came the real test.  Not only was the road rough , in places boggy, in others rocky and bumpy, but it was interminably longer than you thought.  Every time I looked at the map and though we were making progress I would be sorely disappointed.


The long dusty road – sometimes muddy

The slow progress did mean I noticed a lot of detail.  As we progressed northwards the vegetation got thicker and more scrubby, and we had risen up onto a low plateau.  The road passed through the middle of a string of villages – most of them similar in construction.  Their centres had quite substantial houses made of concrete or at least locally made bricks.  Although they were often dilapidated and covered in mould, moss and lichens from years of long wet seasons, you could see they were comparatively of high status.  Surrounding these were more modest local brick houses.  One thing I noticed here which I could not remember from trip in East or Southern Africa were washing poles.  Whereas elsewhere people peg out the laundry on lines or lay it across bushes or on the floor, the majority of these houses had thick poles, maybe 20cm across, held in place by two more forked poles, where clothes were wrapped around.  To me it seemed like a very inefficient way to dry clothes – my experience has always been the minimum amount of cloth touching anything else is best to help lower the humidity, but maybe in the dry season the heat generated out of the wood would help to toast the clothes very quickly.  In the current cusp of the rainy season it seemed like they were more useful as washing poles than drying ones.

Into the Jungle – Speeding into the interior

While we had been coming along the peninsula the wide mangrove swamps of the Freetown harbour lay flat to our left and you could see why no-one had every driven a shorter route from Lungi Airport through here, it was a quagmire of channels and thick vegetation.

Beyond Waterloo the scenery changed.. For one thing there were far fewer people and vehicles here, and our speed on this graded road increased dramatically.  Second we were going through gently undulating countryside now that was peppered with palm trees.  I had a few discussions with my fellow travellers about these but could never work out whether these were stands of native palms or the remnants of some old plantations.  They certainly looked quite well ordered, but did palm trees always grow like this in the wild?  Most of my memories of palms were fringing tropical islands or mixed in amongst scrub.  Here they were the dominant tree rising high above the other species and often well spaced apart.

We dropped down to a large river crossed by a single lane metal bridge.  It was more by luck that we did not get stuck with a lorry coming the other way, but while we waited for one or two cars to cross from the other direction, a series of wise hawkers tried to sell us groundnuts , bananas and unripe mangoes.

We reached a check point but were waived through quickly.  Sierra Leone certainly seemed more relaxed out here in the countryside.  It had been over ten years since the civil war, and some wounds were being healed.  However, it was obvious from the number of limbs missing of people that others would never be forgotten.


Materials for the new chinese railway

We passed a couple of main roads heading off to other parts of the country; one to Bo, the second city of Sierra Leone, then we turned off ourselves from the main road to Conakry in Guinea and headed eastwards.


The landscape started to change again; the palm trees thinned out, there were wider open plains mostly grazed, punctuated by dense stands of forest usually surrounding villages.  These were both the fruit trees that people prized – mainly mangoes, but in some places they were sacred groves.  An offshoot of having a place for spirits, burial sites and the like was that the vegetation cover was so much more highly prized.

We passed the first mining town we had seen.  Lunsar.  A new railway had been constructed, again by the Chinese, to access a mine deep in the interior of the country.  It was carefully graded and had heavy engineering to keep the worst of the tropical downpours from undermining the line.  Brand new, it cut a red scar through the landscape as it ran parallel to the main road.

The Other Mauritius – A quieter route

So when I had leisure time, the thought of battling through the centre of Port Louis was not my idea of fun.  Fortunately I found some interesting back roads to avoid the jams.

One route was to head south past a little reservoir called La Nicolière. There was no direct route from our house – the layout of the roads followed the alignment of the cane plantations and I would take one of two alternatives through villages like Mapou, Poudre D’Or and Piton.  The roads steadily rose up to the main A2.  The A2 was one of those magnificent cane plantation roads; to shade the travellers avenues of trees had been planted and these had grown to have thick trunks like the pillars in a cathedral nave.  After rising still further I turned off through some more cane fields and eventually reaching a dam wall.  At the far end of this the road turned sharply up some hairpins, but I would usually stop to take in the cooler air and view from this point.  The lake was tucked under a set of wooded mountains but still perched high up amongst them and looking north the whole northern plain was laid out before you.  Mostly it was sugar cane fields, but it was pockmarked with villages and small wooded areas; often the old plantation houses.  The sea shimmered in the far distance and if it were clear enough you could see the islands; the ones which loomed so large at Calodyne were specs on the horizon from here.

Heading up the hairpins was a hair raising experience, mainly due to mad young teenagers on scooters or people with cars too large for them to handle swinging out in front of you on the bend. Once up on the mountain themselves you were in thick forest, with occasional glorious vistas hinted at through clearings to your left.  This was the Rubicon for me, the views were different now from my home area; I had passed across to the “rest” of the island.

More often than not when I passed this way, the cloud base was low and I drove through a cool soggy forest, the reeds and mosses on either side thriving in this environment.  It was almost like being in a Scottish forest in midsummer.  I loved it, it was the closest place to our house which I could call a wilderness.  A few people did come up here to picnic but the climate was not really to Mauritian tastes.  The odd vehicle passed through and there was some work on the forests.  But it was so quiet compare to the hustle and bustle of the villages.

Life on Mars – A claim to fame?

If you are back in Two Boats, you can get access to the other scenic road, the NASA road by continuing out up the hill towards Green Mountain and turning right.  Hidden away to the left in the Mexican thorn bushes are  The Two Boats which give the village its name.  These again are row boats stuck in the ground, and gave shade or shelter to naval crew carrying water down the mountain to Georgetown.  The only school on the island, also called Two Boats, is tucked round the back here and some of the only bus services ferry kids from the other settlements to here and back again each day.  The only other regular bus services are on a Friday and Saturday night to ferry drunk residents back from the clubs.

The main roads on Ascension are well maintained and relatively straight and this had given the opportunity for drunk drivers to race around after a drinking session, and then hit a donkey, another car or just miss that crucial bend and end up a wreck in the lava fields.  I got to know a lot about the road traffic accidents (or RTA) on Ascension.  On the first visit Edsel and I found out that visitor numbers were monitored by the Police Force as they were the ones stamping the passports of  people in an out of the country.  Knowing how many visitors were on island were good for the conservation questionnaires and surveys which monitored usages of footpaths, beaches or sites of interest.  So, as a bit of a bargaining tool to get hold of this information, I offered to help the police with their other data.  Police on Ascension generally only have minor offences to deal with and RTAs were the ones which took up the most time.  I managed to create a little database from their RTA spreadsheet and worked out how to map the information.  I struck up a good relationship with one of the constables there, Johnny Thomas, and we made some maps.  There was a patch of accidents happening on the main road between the US Base and Georgetown not far from the junction of Hogan’s Bypass.  I was partly proud that due to the mapping some road traffic calming methods we introduced.  I was also partly embarrassed because it was quite the topic of conversation.  Speed limit signs had gone up everywhere and close to the accident hotspot a whole series of signs told you to slow down, bend coming up, left turn, and wild animals.  Maybe a bit of overkill but these measures and the introduction of the bus service did bring down what had been a worryingly high incidence of accidents.  I did notice that on one stretch of road the speed limit in one direction was different from the limit the other way, but maybe that was intentional?

Getting back to the tour of the main roads, dropping down from Two Boats you find Travellers Hill.  I have spent much less time here than the other settlements; most of the accommodation and the NAAFI club  are around a semi circular road, similar to Two Boats laid out on a low density housing estate style, or perhaps a low rise hospital.  There were many more single person accommodations here, many of the Saints working for the base complained that the units were not really homely.  But so much of this accommodation was for temporary billets.