There is an instinct inside many of us, a raw natural urge that draws us to the Road. It is a longing for the excitement of the unknown, the freedom a traveler feels when waking up in a place unfamiliar to him, not knowing where he will find himself tomorrow. It is the sense of liberty that comes with putting yourself in the hands of fate and waiting to see what life throws your way. A land of coups and diamond smugglers, Sierra Leone had always caught my imagination, and now that peace and stability has returned once again it is accessible to visitors. It seemed like the perfect antidote to the tedium and monotony of university life. On one dreary summer afternoon I found myself in Heathrow airport boarding a plane to Freetown with my girlfriend, Tash, and two close friends, Fred and Anwen.
The first memory I have of Sierra Leone was the wall of hot, humid air that swept through the cabin the instant the doors were opened. West Africa in the rainy season feels very much like stepping into a sauna. In fact, the country holds the dubious distinction of having the hottest minimum temperature in Africa, something with which we were to become all too familiar over the next three weeks. Getting from the airport to the city involved taking a ferry across the Great Scarcies River, which proved to be an experience on its own— watching Freetown gradually take shape, dwarfed by the mountains that form its backdrop.
However, we decided to save the capital for another day and instead made our way south towards the unoriginally named River No.2 Beach. The road was badly potholed but very scenic. The blood-red earth contrasted fiercely with the greens of the roadside jungle from which a cacophony of birdsong and cicadas filtered through the open car windows., This reminded us how very far we had come from the drab motorways of southern England. The car broke down a few kilometers before our destination, but we got there eventually and were greeted with a spectacular view over the deserted beach. It truly was a stunning sight to behold, the crystalline waters of the Guma River snaking their way over soft white sand before melting away into the warm Atlantic rollers. The picture was completed by the lush mountains that cascaded right down to the shore behind the beach in a riot of tropical vegetation.
The next day we arranged a trip up the river and spent a happy few hours cruising upstream in a small dugout canoe gliding past mangrove swamps and through patches of dense jungle. At one point I saw a large shoal of flying fish, floating gracefully over the turquoise waters. On the way back, the sky opened and in seconds we were soaked by torrential rain like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The power of the storms in Sierra Leone is quite astounding. They seem to have an almost human presence, an immense but benign energy breathing life into the surroundings.
Leaving River No.2 Beach behind, we now set off into the unknown. Our destination was a small archipelago lying off the south of the country, the Turtle Islands. Getting there involved a multi-legged journey over land and sea that took the entire day. By lunchtime we had reached the small port town of Tombo, situated on the southern end of the Freetown Peninsula where we were greeted by a chaotic mêlée of Sierra Leoneans all shouting names of islands we had never heard of. We eventually met a radio DJ from Peninsula FM who spoke English and directed us to a small rickety wooden boat, bobbing away in the waves, just off shore. Before boarding, we visited the market and stocked up on food and water supplies to last a few days as we had learned that there were no shops of any kind on the island. As it turned out, neither were there roads, vehicles, electricity or any of the other things we depend upon so heavily in the western world.
The boat was weighed down by hundreds of locals, squeezed in so tightly that movement of any kind was rendered impossible. The hull of the boat was filled with cargo and the passengers perched on top, clinging for dear life. It was a scene of absolute chaos and our misgivings were heightened when, just before setting sail, we witnessed an ominous altercation on the dock as an irate man who I presume must have been an official of some kind let loose a tirade, telling the captain the boat was overcrowded and that it was madness to leave without life jackets on board. This man has since been vindicated, as a couple of months later one of those boats on exactly the same route capsized, tragically killing over 200 people.