At this time of year a day without rain in Freetown is a rare one. The clouds don’t so much as roll in off the ocean, but hang ominously over the mountainous peninsula like a dark dirty blanket, capable of soaking the city and its overpopulated residents at any given moment. There is no longer any thunder or lightning display as a pre-warning, and the question is not so much if it will rain in the day, but when.

The capital was in fact dry for a few days on my return from Sahn Malen, and had I not been suffering with a cold and toothache I would have made my escape. The latter became worrying for a short time, so much so that the thought of undergoing dental treatment within Freetown’s government hospital had me seriously considering a return trip home. Fortunately the toothache subsided with the cold, but when I was ready to leave the state of Freetown’s streets were more suitable for surfing out of than riding a bicycle.

My hosts were optimistic that it would brighten up later, but the Lord clearly wasn’t answering their call on this occasion. Having originally stayed in the compound of a Sierra Leonean family, the premises of which might better have been described as a student squatter house, I found myself taking refuge in the company of missionaries on my return to Freetown. A friend from University put me in contact, although there was no mention of religious denomination when I e-mailed or spoke on the phone.

It was following grace at the table one evening that I was asked what church I belonged to. For a moment I thought of replying with something to the effect of ‘the Church of free thinkers’, but a pause in my response, and some kind of affirmative “um” to the question “Are you an Anglican like us”? seemed to settle matters.

Mike and Vi were in actual fact the kindest of hosts, and if they’re reading this they can be rest-assured that I’ve made it safely to Monrovia.

For the past decade they’ve been in Freetown to teach and spread the Lord’s word. Other assignments/missions have included living in remote Irin Jaya in the 1980’s. “I remember an English adventurer who made a name for himself mentioning us in one of his books”, remarked Mike. I thought for a moment – “maybe Benedict Allen”? “That’s the one. ‘From the crocodile’s mouth’ or something like that, was the name of the book.”

Conversation at the table often touched on religion. About so and so who was a Muslim, but had converted to Christianity. How Islam has grown in Sierra Leone since the war (all the Bangladeshi peace-keepers apparently) and how Christmas isn’t celebrated like it should be in Freetown. I did more listening than talking on these occasions.

When I finally left Freetown I didn’t get very far. The beaches more than the weather were to blame. I also met an interesting chap who’d recently returned from the states and built an ugly but idyllically-located concrete bungalow right on the beach. At the suggestion of this man – Mr James Sharp (it seems the Krio minority in Sierra Leone take very English names) I pitched my tent on the veranda and joined him in dining on the day’s catch.

Beach company: Tokeh 

 Sierra Leone’s claim to having some of the finest beaches in Africa is no overstatement. What makes the miles of palm-fringed white sand special is that its largely unspoilt. James pointed to a helicopter pad a short distance out in the sea and told me some history about Tokeh village. “That pad used to be connected to the beach by a wooden bridge and lit-up at night with lanterns. The owner of Africana wanted to create an impression for his guests.” Africana I later learnt used to be an enormous French-owned tourist resort, catering to 500 people and employing over 400 members of staff. James handed me a faded brochure showing photos of white tourists mingling round a pool in swim-shorts and bikinis. The place closed in 1995 and all that remains now are a few roofless concrete blocks. The jungle has taken over the rest.

“I was accounts manager for seven years”, explained James as he walked me over the site. “This is where I used to sit with a Mackintosh”. We were standing on the moss-covered foundations of the complex, behind which was a second helicopter pad, the remains of a discotheque and two overgrown tennis courts.

Africana remains 

The beach now, like most of them on the Freetown peninsula, is devoid of tourist development. The war is naturally to blame, but I still imagined that someone with a bit of money and entrepreneurial spirit would have done something with the land in the past decade. The road around the peninsula is half-paved now, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the secrets of Sierra Leone’s beaches are re-discovered by mainstream tourism? Or maybe not.

Tokeh 

Heading south from Tokeh the peninsula mountains became lusher and wilder. Water gushed out over boulder-strewn river-beds on its steep descent to the ocean and sign-posts on the road displayed names that seemed very out of place – York, Kent, Waterloo.

York town: Sierra Leone 

Freetown Peninsula 

My plans had been to take a boat south from the peninsula and access one of two hard-to-reach coastal settlements, (Shenge or Bonthe) but the over-loaded wooden vessel that was about to depart in choppy seas didn’t inspire confidence. That and the fact that I would have to wade chest-deep to reach it.

Instead I followed the railway-line, or at least a route along which there used to be a railway-line. There has been no train running in Sierra Leone since the 1970’s. That was when the President at the time, Siaka Stevens, decided to pay off some of his mounting debts by selling the nation’s entire railway track. All that remains now are eery station posts  (Hastings, Bradford, Levuma, Mano), station houses (abandoned or else converted into clinics or government buildings) and the occasional bridge over some of the country’s major rivers.

Old railway sign

 

Colonial remains  

There is little of interest in the countryside between these old settlements and their colonial past. Mile after continuous mile of slashed and burnt slopes stretch to either side of red-laterite tracks. No-where  does the ground rise high enough to give a really good lie of the land. Between the slashed stumps palm trees rise above cassava and rice plantations, their trunks and branches sticking up like toilet-brushes. If there ever was any wild animals, as all the locals like to warn me about, they either escaped during the war or else have been hunted down during this slash and burn blitz.

Rough red road 

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Most of the villages along these tracks are almost as monotonous and dull. Mud huts are fronted by bamboo posts, erected like goal posts, onto which clothes dry. In some of the dwellings hammocks hang under the eaves of roofed thatch. Here elders may muster a wave from their lethargic repose as you pedal by. In other villages (most come to think of it) swarms of children run towards, and sometimes away from you, screaming “pomoi” (foreigner). There is little to distinguish one settlement from another.

Village life 

If the women aren’t washing clothes, pounding something, collecting water or preparing a fire for cooking, their chief pastime appears to be plaiting one another’s hair. As for the young men, those not laboring in the fields might be sat in the village meeting hall – a thatched gazebo, which is a centrally located feature of most settlements. They may have a radio switched on and be listening to the BBC World Service or a local station. Questions usually come forth whenever I stop to greet, take in my surroundings and occasionally ask for directions and distances.

“What is your mission?” one will ask after hearing that I’ve ridden a bicycle from England. It is a question I’ve been asked more in Sierra Leone than anywhere else. If I’m not an NGO worker, a missionary, a diamond-prospector or a tourist then what am I?  “An adventurer” I’ll say for want of a response. “What about the wild animals?” another might then ask. “It is the wild people I’m more afraid of” I’ll say. I could point to my wrist at this stage, but don’t bother. Some go on to ask whether the government pays me. Why else after all would a white man be riding a bicycle through Africa? If a small crowd hasn’t by this time formed around the bike it soon will, and unless there is something I need to do in the village (get water, food, ask for a place to stay) I’ll say my farewells and go. I ought to mention that there is no hostility or threat in any of these encounters. The friendliness of Sierra Leoneans  more than makes up for the monotony of much of their country’s landscape.

Having only visited one beach in Sierra Leone I decided on a small detour to see whether others were equally as beautiful. Sulima didn’t disappoint. My guidebook tells me it was once an important trading post (a chap from Liverpool was buried here – his lonely grave dating to 1879) and that Siaka Stevens built his holiday villa here. It’s war-ravaged shell remains beyond the collection of shacks. But it is the long white beach that separates the ocean on one side from the mouth of the Moa river on the other that defines this remote outpost. Zero development yet again, but then the road to get here requires some effort. I walked the beach and spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to build a guest house here. The river on one side, sea on the other, fresh fish, river and jungle trips. I’d have it built from local materials, employ the villagers, power it with solar and wind. Travelling cyclists would stay for free, although I’m not too sure all that many pass this way. For anyone else, Sulima is a long drive from Freetown. Nine kilometers along the beach and you’re in Liberia, which is where I was headed to next.

Beach in Sulima