Living in the Community – On the road to Kuru Hills

Nevertheless, it was with renewed excitement that I woke up the next day.  We made an early start for the Kuru Hills.  Gray was out here mapping the vegetation for the whole of West Africa.  He was trying to teach various agencies in each of the country’s his techniques but still him and his colleagues had to do the bulk of the work.  I admired his techniques of interpreting the landscape and mapping the different types of vegetation and land use on the surface, and I wanted to see how he did his field work, keen to pick up some tips.

One of the national park rangers from the Kilimi-Outamba Park joined us in Fintonia and we travelled north from the village , past Sumata where we had been stranded by the fallen tree the previous year.   The road was permanently diverted round the remains of our tree and the tree itself was now overgrown.  We passed a couple of hamlets and the village of Yana, then Gray and the driver started talking about where the turn off  was.  He spotted it no problem – Gray is a supreme geographer therefore an obvious navigator.  It was only 7km to the foot of the Kuru Hills but the track was narrow and potholed and it wound up and down and round and round to take the easiest route through the knobbly terrain.  Gray was already working as we went along.  He had spotted a series of strips of vegetation that looked more uniform than most of the forest and they appeared to be along this route we were taking now.  We looked around to spot we were traversing along a narrow strip of rubber trees.  To our left the natural forest could be seen starting again only about 30m away, and about the same distance to the right we could see scrub and a view out over the plain below these foothills of the Kuru range.  It seemed that the track we were on would have been to service these trees and ship the timber back to the coast.  The villages we passed through close to the end of our journey had most probably sprung up because of the road, not vice versa.



Into the Jungle – Tackling the block

Eventually the window lightened and as soon as I could extricate myself from between my two colleagues, I headed out into the school playground.  A couple of biscuits, some water and a quick swill with a toothbrush and we were ready to move.  We waited for a while for the caretaker to assemble two younger relatives to go with us with a set of machetes.  It was a grey soulless day, but the heat was already rising as we trudged the five miles back to where we hoped the vehicle still was.  Steam rose from the dense thickets either side, and there were sandy pools of water standing from the previous day’s rain.  When we reached the site we saw the full extent of the medium sized tree that had fallen across the road.  Peering behind it was the red van and surprisingly it was still the only vehicle there – there was not even evidence of anyone turning around behind our car –  nothing else had ventured out in to the torrential rainfall of the previous evening.

I thought the machetes were a little useless against the thick trunk of the tree – a medium sized tree in the tropics is still a mighty object. But of course that was not the intention.  They set about demolishing the smaller branches off the top of the tree now buried in the undergrowth .  While the tree had uprooted from a bank on the west side that would have been unscaleable even in a four by four, the east side dropped gently downhill and as far as I could make out with no muddy hollows to swallow up our vehicle.   Kofi and I seemed pretty useless compared to the driver and two local guys who hacked away for about 45 minutes.  We helped clear the excess shrubbery and throw it in to the bush, but my attempts with the machete in the thick humid air were futile – sweat gushed over my brows after a few swipes.

The last and largest branch was too heavy to bodily lift so the four of us dragged and levered it into the main part of the track, leaving just enough room for our vehicle to squeeze past.  We stood and watched as our driver gingerly guided the car over the piles of leaves, macheted undergrowth and loose twigs and branches, hoping it would not sink into mud, suffer a puncture from the remains of the tree or veer off into impenetrable bush.  It did none of these and with a roar he bumped the car back onto the safety of the sandy track.

There were cheers and whoops all round, and a lot of relieved smiles.  It was barely 8 am.  The two local guys piled in the back and we drove them back to the school; handing over a very appreciated payment to all, and to the caretaker for giving us some board the night before.  And we were on our way.

Into the Jungle – Stranded in Sumata

The rain was easing by now but it had already done the damage.  The ground had become sodden and it must have only taken one sharp gust of wind to dislodge the roots from the soil; once it started tipping there was no going back.

We went back into the car to think through our options.  There was no real point in trying to drive back – the nearest substantial village was a couple of hours away and we would have to get through that gully again.  We could stick it out in the vehicle all night and see if anyone else came along, or walk forward to Sumata which by our estimations from GPS was about 8km down the road.  At one point we thought we might split up sending a rescue party out while two stayed at the vehicle, but given it was now dark and there was no chance of clearing the blockage that night, we decided we should all walk.  We looked in the boot and packed small overnight bags with essentials, mainly water, snacks and our torches, and locked the car up.  Reluctantly but necessarily, we headed down the road.

We kept our torches off for the most time, and only used one at a time, but there was a dim glow from the starlight and somewhere a moon was beginning to rise behind the clouds so we could discern some shapes.  There were no houses out here; no glows from fires where dinner must be on the go, and we met no-one on the road.  The frogs were calling out but the flies were not too bad and we kept moving so they did not congregate.

I noticed the surface of the road kept changing – you tend to focus in on some things when your view is restricted by dark.  In some places there were pools of water but the soil was generally sandy and, although firm, it was not sodden.  We passed over some rocky areas, and there were times when the grass grew down the middle.  We went up some steep slopes, but all we could see from the clearings at the top was more forest.

The road eventually flattened out and we realised we were walking next to a soccer pitch.  We were at the junior school outside of Sumata, still about 1km from the village.  But we saw some light in one of the buildings and when we reached a junction marked by white painted stones, we turned off and approached cautiously – we didn’t want to frighten whoever it was.  It turned out to be a family of one late middle aged man, a wife, a couple of teenagers and several more kids down to a small baby.

Our driver was from Freetown and did not speak Susu, but the man had a smattering of Krio so we were able to tell him our story and find out he was the school caretaker.  He offered us a seat, even in the dim light I am sure he could see that we were shattered.  We sat and sipped our water, passed our snacks around; we were not offered any food and it would have been unexpected if we had – we had turned up mid evening to this remote place without any warning.


Three tired travellers

Into the Jungle – Good News and Bad News

Another half hour passed and Haba was looking pissed – he had to get back to Madina Oula.  The afternoon was well advanced when this guy came back.  He never gave us a full explanation of what he had been doing, but claimed that he had been waiting in another place and didn’t know we had arrived.  We didn’t argue for long, we needed to keep him sweet enough to get us back to Freetown.  This time we did not have the security net of the convoy, we were travelling through the bush all alone.  We said our farewells to Haba who was also in a hurry to get back across the border.

At least we knew the road this time, so we could gauge our progress, but the weather closed in hard on us for the first hour or so.  At times the driver could barely make out the road ahead through the windscreen even with the wipers on max.  He hissed and sighed a good deal, especially when he went through a pothole too fast.  Most of the people were under cover as we passed through, but a few were still out carrying wood on their heads, trying to stay away from our splashes as best they could.  With all this rain, the one place I was really concerned about was the ropey wooden bridge near Sumata.  With the rain pouring the gully might be filled, and the slopes would definitely be slippy.

We could spot the bridge from about a 100m away, and decided to risk the gully route over the rotted planks one.  Going down into the gully was no problem; the slope was gentle and although muddy still firm enough to get a grip and the gully itself was fortunately not yet in flood.  The up side was mostly rocky outcrop and much steeper and the rain had made it incredibly slippy.  Our driver took the best run he could at it, but his wheels spun and we went sideways, almost at one stage going dangerously parallel to the slope.  We slid back down to the bottom.  He got out in the rain and reccied the road ahead; it was difficult to see whether one patch was more favourable than another.  He took another stab, and amidst a lot of smoke, wheelspin and engine noise, we reached the top.  We gave him a lot of credit for this.  It was already dusk, made darker  by the heavy clouds,  but we only had a few more kilometres to get to Sumata then another hour to Fintonia and our stop for the night.  The relief amongst all four of us was palpable.


No way through

About five minutes later we were passing through a dense piece of forest, the rain still lashing down and the light fading fast.  We were chatting quite freely after the tense moments at the bridge.  We drove round a corner to find our way completely blocked.  The rain had brought down a tree, about 15m high – right across the track and into the herbaceous scrub to our left.  We got out the car and took a look – it was far too large for us to bodily move it, the roots on one side, the shrubbery on the other too thick to divert around it, and even if we tried, who knew how soft the ground was there and whether we could get back on the track again.

Into the Jungle – The journey home starts with delays

We headed back to the guesthouse in the middle of town for a stodgy lunch of rice and chicken once more.  The rest of the team had another meeting  in the afternoon, but Matt, Kofi and I had to start heading back to Freetown, and needed to cross the border to Guinea.  Given we had lost one of our vehicles on day one of the trip, the logistics for this was a little complex.  Hugo had lost us a second vehicle the day before, and two were needed to go forward to the southern part of Guinea.  Fortunately, the rental company had provided us with another vehicle that had travelled to Fintonia the day before; it had no papers to cross in to Guinea, so we needed to be dropped at the border and this new rental plus driver would be there to pick us up….. hopefully.

Haba would take us through the border and so we packed into the STEWARD Toyota.  He drove with his usual care and speed and we flew down to the Sierra Leone border.  There only being three of us, and once Haba had explained he was just dropping us off, the immigration did not take long.  However the stamp I got in my passport that day caused me problems at Lungi Airport.  Although I now had a multi-entry visa, the stamp at Sanya was for two weeks only, and I was to be in Freetown about 18 more days.  This was spotted as I left the immigration and only after several minutes of pointing out that I also had a month long stamp from Lungi airport, I had not seen the need to look for an extension.  How I got away without a detention or a bribe at Lungi I have no idea but sheer determination when I want to go home often gets me through silly bureaucracy.  When I try and be reasonable that is when I normally get caught out.


Time to leave Kansema

We passed through the border post and drove into Sanya village.  The sunny weather just before lunch had all but gone; Haba was sucking through his teeth a little and saying that the wet season was well and truly arrived.  The rain was falling steadily now.   Haba was well known in Sanya and he stopped off near the Secretary’s house where he often lodged when passing through.  The rental car was parked in the centre of the village not far from where we had had lunch the previous day, but of our driver there was no sign.  We sat in the car for a while but as the windows clogged up with steam the three of us wandered up on to the veranda of the Secretary’s house, greeted various family members and friends there and perched where we could.  There being no mobile reception here, Haba’s phone was useless so he sent some people off to look for the guy.  We had a few ideas what he might be up to; a couple of which were not very salubrious.

I’m so much more patient in Africa than back home, but even so half an hour passed here very slowly and the calculations were going on in my head – the drive to Fintonia was probably 4 hours from here in the best of weather and the rain was gushing down now, it was dripping off roofs into buckets and pans, overspilling down the steps and brown rivulets of water were forming in all the erosion gullies.

There was some activity on the road while we sat there; several old rusty taxis packed full of people and their roofs overloaded with luggage, bounced down the rocky road towards the border.  Not much seemed to be going south.  A couple of trucks also passed through, belching black smoke into the rain.  I started to wonder if the three of us would have to catch one of the taxis ourselves.  Matt had to be back in Freetown in two days as he had a flight to head to London the day after.

Into the Jungle – At the Border

We said our farewells to Hugo and set off down the road out of the village.  I’d been pondering what it was like to cross the border into Guinea.  Was it like so many places where the two huts were a few yards apart and there was a little no man’s land in between?  From the meeting room where we had lunched, I could see the road wind down through the houses to where it was obvious there was a stream hidden in the trees and I imagined that was where the post would be, but when we drove down and back up the other side, I realised the village was set back from the border.  It was in fact another kilometre or so before we reached the police post on the Sierra Leone side.  The rainclouds had all but cleared now and the sun was beating down on this point.  Haba and the other drivers took our passports and the vehicle paperwork into the small brick police station at the side of the road while the rest of us sat quietly in the cars.  The most senior official came out and walked to a small open wooden shelter covered with reed thatch adjacent to the road, and Haba beckoned us to join him.

This high tech border post needed only three pieces of kit; a tatty old ledger, a rubber stamp and an ink pad.  He took some time moving the date on the stamp to today’s date.  Carefully and laboriously the man wrote all our passport details into the ledger, rolled the stamp across the ink pad and firmly marked our passports with the exit visa.  Amongst the several American, the couple of British, the Ghanaian, Nigerian and several Sierra Leone passports, I was processed about half way through and walked back towards the vehicle.  The track headed across a small stream from here and I imagined the Guinean border post was just round the corner, obscured at present by some shrubs, and I also imagined the process would be as long and laborious round there.  Apart from this hut and an old abandoned brick shack on the other side of the track, there were no buildings in sight.  I was just surrounded by farm land interspersed with scrub.  It proved that borders could be very artificial artefacts of human life.  This was to be proved in spades over the rest of the afternoon.

Into the Jungle – Heading to the Border

It was a long drive to Sanya, and I noted that the road itself was of poorer quality once we left Sumata.  The rain had also started to fall.  With the steam on the inside and the drops on the window, there was not a lot to see, but at least we were lucky to be in the dry.  We passed by people huddling under the trees, or just walking along in the rain by the road, trying to avoid our splashes as we went past.  At one point the convoy came to a complete halt; up ahead was a medium sized bridge – it was two metal girders over two concrete posts crossing a ravine of some 7-8 metres deep.  The general structure seemed sound enough but there were some concerns about the wooden planks over the top.  The ones perpendicular to the road were in various states of decay; and overlain there were planks along the road to line up with our tyres, but one section of these were missing completely.  We were not entirely certain that the planks were nailed together properly and with the weight of the vehicles plus luggage and passengers, we were wondering how much shifting of the planks would occur, potentially destabilising the whole structure and sending us toppling off into the ravine.


The gloom deepens as we approach the border

Clearly we were not the only ones that were concerned about the bridge.  To the left of the road, down a steep rocky incline, was a second track, down to the dry river bed and back up an easier slope.  One by one the 4x4s negotiated this slippy hill and we went on along the track on the far side.

The rain began to clear, but our rental drivers were again inexperienced in dealing with the now muddy road and Haba had jumped way ahead.  We caught up with them at a point, where for both men and women was a useful relief stop, and I finally got a few moments to look around.  The terrain was changing.  In the east, a sheer cliff of sandstone rising over 1000ft to a plateau.  Gray confirmed this was the Kuru Hills.  Where we were now was a more open woody savannah, more grassy areas in between the tree stands than in Fintonia.  We dropped down over the next few miles to Sanya village.  Although the weather was gloomy, it only added to a feeling of decay in Sanya.  Yes the same mould and moss was all over the houses as elsewhere an everywhere looked muddy, but more of the houses were in poor repair.

Into the Jungle – On to Sumata

Next morning we had another early start.  We had to pack the vehicles with all our kit, pay our bills to the warden – nice that the project would pay for accommodation in spite of being big assistance to their programs.  No point in giving aid if you take advantage of those who you help by taking freebies.  We had given quite a nice tip to our warden on the river the day before; it was a nice extra not an expected right.

We bounced off back to the main road and on up to Fintonia.  A small stop to pick up Momoh who was renting a room there, and a quick stop at the office then we headed down to the paramount chief’s house once more, but this time we turned left into a deep dark river valley and up the other side.  We travelled several miles, past a small hamlet where a couple of families were doing their chores round the house.  Several of these hamlets had grown up over time.  With shifting cultivation, it usually starts with farmers in some central location and heading out to the bush to clear and farm.  Over time, the number of fertile plots decreases close in and people have to travel further to cultivate land; which means more back and forth by foot, or if you are lucky, on a bike or small tractor.  There comes a point where this is too far to be economical or healthy, and families might relocate to a fresh area to start cultivation away from the congested or infertile lands near the village.  My only concern about this is whether these new hamlet have enough access to permanent water, but I assume some borehole or stream was near enough to make it viable.

The next village proper was Sumata and as we drove in, I was taken at how elegant its main street looked.  Not just the substantial houses we had seen elsewhere but both sides of the road were lined with mature mango trees dangling an excess of near ripe fruit.  As we parked up at the top of a street, most of the villagers not in the fields or in town came to greet us and walked down to the chief’s house.  He had a good size veranda that accommodated most people for the meeting, but the surrounding ground was still full of children and onlookers.

The meeting went as the others, and we broke up to take a walk around the STEWARD activities again.  While some side meetings were going on, Gray’s USGS colleague, Matt had seen that the children were following him around, so he made them form a group and take a photo of them.  It’s a scene from any travel blog or writings of the last twenty years.  Some people are still not happy for you to take photos of them (the fishermen at Kabba Ferry were some), and some would like to have some money for you taking their photos, but the big advantage with digital cameras, particularly with the large displays on the back, is you can instantly show your subjects the results.  And the reactions are wonderful – embarrassed teenage girls wishing they had spent more time on their hair, cheeky children laughing and giggling as soon as you show them their mugshot, older men and women just happy to see themselves on this new fangled technology.  Matt got all the children to crouch down and quieten them, but once taken, they thronged around him to get a view from the tiny screen.  Even the local imam took a peek.  Of course once they had seen the trick once, they wanted it again and again and again and again…..

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – A ride around the hillsides

We escaped the office early enough to make it back up the hill to Ibo lele in less than 90 minutes and the ride gave me a chance to catch up more with Christophe and Jean-Luc.  Already settled in to a routine, we had an hour to catch up on email and relax, a shower, out on the terrace  for a quick sundowner beer followed by dinner orders and eat.  The sun set over the Caribbean Sea to our west, momentarily lighting up the mountains facing us, the bare rock glinting in the light at times.  A plane took off from the airport and soared above the city and the light caught it too.  Then the mix of mist and smoke from thousands of cooking fires below obscured most of the detail of the valley till the streetlights started to shine through.

Next day my colleagues headed back to the ministry, while I waited around for our driver to return and headed west to my appointment with the national GIS.  The route took us through the centre of Petionville and down a grid of streets with a Bohemian mix of cafes and shops.  Several walls along the road were coated in vibrant coloured paintings ; thickly layered canvases with both naive but rich interactions of natural scenery, people, products, agriculture, market scenes, and coastal scenes.  Another section of road was adorned with metal work on a massive scale – large wall hangings of suns, free standing sculptures and sheets worked into grand designs.


Driving round the hillsides

The road wound around the precipitous ridges coming off the mountains, down one side of a valley, zigzagging to the river in the middle, crossing a small bridge and zigzagging back up the other side.  In some places high walls shielded large compounds with luxurious villas; right next door I might get a glimpse down a track into a valley to a dense huddle of shacks with men, women, children, dogs and chickens busying themselves with the mid morning chores.  And when the view opened up, I would get glimpses of houses clinging to every space on the steep hillside and nothing but footpaths linking them to the rest of the city.