Arriving in Sierra Leone and climbing Mount Bintumani

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Our flight from Morocco landed in the early hours of the morning so we arrived in Sierra Leone in a somewhat peaceful daze. To get to Freetown from the airport you have to catch a ferry across the bay so on leaving the airport a van took us down a rough and bumpy track to a make shift wharf made from old yellow plastic containers strapped together with rope. Our ferry was a small and somewhat shabby looking enclosed capsule like boat docked to this bobbing yellow rig. Through the haze of my weariness I couldn’t help marvelling that this was the common way to come to and from the International Airport. But the ferry ride was calm and in my sleep deprived state I felt completely at ease in the hands of our crew of young boys, they seemed no older than 16, who one by one dropped off to sleep on the floor and benches until there was just the driver left standing. At first the lights of Freetown across the bay seemed impossibly far away but we arrived just as the night sky glimpsed morning, the mist lightly lifting and phosphorescence in the wake of our boat.

From then on we were tucked under the wing of Dan and Ame, our friends from Australia who Damio will be taking over from as the volunteer program coordinator for the NGO Energy for Opportunity (EFO). Our drive to Makeni, where we will be living, was somewhat uneventful if you ignore the fact that the driver stopped to rotate the tyres on three occasions, and each time we were swarmed by curious children as well as adults trying to sell us bananas or peanuts that they carried in big platters on their heads.

The house we live in is very luxurious for Salone standards; we have a concrete floor, a well, solar power that can run low energy appliances, and toilets – luxurious even though they don’t flush because we don’t have running water.

Three days in and already tiring from a diet of rice with a sauce of cassava leaf, dried fish, chilli and plenty of red palm oil, we embarked on a mission to climb Mount Bintumani, West Africa’s highest peak at 1,948m. This involved taking motorbikes from Kabala, a delightfully cool township in the mountains of the north of the country, to the village of Sinekoro further west, higher and heavenly cooler still. A five-hour ride on a bumpy, beaten up, steep and slippery track, two to each bike plus a pack and enough water for five days and four people, the going was rough but thankfully slow…ish… We arrived at a Village just before a river where we stopped to talk to the chief.
Village scene. Photo by Damian Meoli
At each village you stop at in Sierra Leone, or if you are travelling on foot, each village you pass through, it is kosher that you meet the chief who will ask you a series of questions about where you are from where you are going and what it is that you are doing. We were informed that the river was too high to cross on bikes. So with porters instead of bikes and bitacola (a very bitter nut given as a gift to wish a safe journey) in our pockets as a gift from the chief, we crossed the river on a suspension bridge made of woven vines strung between two trees. We walked the rest of the 8km to Sinekoro.
Bridge made of vines. Photo by Damian Meoli
Bridge ties. Photo by Damian Meoli
En-route at all Villages we were met with what seemed like ever multiplying mobs of waving and excitedly screaming swollen bellied children and of course chiefs and other village officials. This made the 8km walk take us a good 6 hours. Finally we arrived at Sinekoro and with more chief and village negotiations and what seemed like hundreds of onlookers we organised porters for the trek up the mountain the next day and food and a place to stay for the night. I slept surprisingly well on the concrete floor of the school with a belly full of chicken and ground-nut (peanut) stew. The four of us paid about AU$5 between us and had a chicken killed and cooked in front of our eyes in a huge pot on the fire along with a pot of rice the size of a small bathtub. This fed all of us our bike riders our porters and about ten other village folk that for some complicated reason that I found difficult to work out were involved in us being there. I enjoyed sitting by the fire with the two women cooking, their babies strapped to their backs, elegantly moving amongst their work and picking the pots up straight from the fire with their bare hands. A small group of children gathered around us that within about half an hour turned into 30… they seemed to mysteriously multiply wherever you went.
people around fire. photo by Damian Meoli
The next day we woke early to begin our climb to Bintumani. The day began walking through fields of ground-nut with banana and red palm trees growing by their side. We then entered thick lowland scrub, with all sorts of plants I recognised as being weeds in Australia, many of them I remembered from my grandmas garden in Queensland. I began to fret that this barely penetrable path in the stifling heat represented the walk for the rest of the day, however with great relief we entered forested jungle and began to climb steep and steadily. At one point we came out upon a grassy hill, which we made our way across, the blades well above our heads, crippled by the heat, views of the mountain high above us. Soon again we were back in the relief of the tree cover and as we climbed it became cooler with every step. Our guides showed us, and we tasted, the bitterness of the bark from trees that were used for relieving headaches and stomach pains and from a distance we watched monkeys flying from tree to tree.

Finally we emerged again from the forest, but this time not into the heat like below. A gentle cool golden grassy alpine plain materialised through clouds rolling by at ground level. On the other side of this small piece of heaven we made our camp by a stream in the shade. The rest of the mountain before us and steep paths and cliffs behind us, it made for a scenic camp, with views of what had been and what was to come.
clouds
We lazed there for the afternoon, washing our clothes and ourselves because our sweaty stench attracted bees that came in the hundreds. That night we slept on the ground with our mosquito net above us. I slept cold and uncomfortable under my blanket waking before light feeling un-rested. Ame and I stayed behind that morning as the boys walked the last leg to the top of the mountain leaving in the just light of the early morning. We boiled water on the fire and lay in the sun. After lunch we started our descent making faster time not that the going was necessarily easier given the steep slippery nature of the path.
morning sun on Bintumani
Back at Sinekoro it was like our last night there repeated. The swollen bellied children gathered again and we ate a meal cooked in enormous quantities on the fire. When we were finished Ame gave the last of our bowl to the children, which resulted in a sudden scramble that lasted 5 seconds and just as suddenly dissolved. If you had blinked you would not have known it happened except for the bowl left empty and spinning in a cloud of dust. I remembered our last night there where one of the cooks had rationed out handfuls of the leftovers to the eager children, now I understood why. As an aside, the swollen bellies of the children are apparently not so much a lack of food (there are bananas and oranges that practically grow wild) but a lack of protein.

The next day we made our return journey to Kabala, my body resented me for getting back on the bike and the trip was worse than the first… I never knew going down steep bumpy hills on a bike was harder than going up. I also kept wondering if the suspension had been shot or whether it was just me. But I was thankful for the breeze when we moved and the pretty views of mountains fields and villages we passed. We were all slightly surprised when we made it with stiff and aching bones back to Makeni by that night.

(All photos in Arriving in Sierra Leone and climbing Mount Bintumani are taken by D except the last one which is taken by Dan)

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