We had arrived in Freetown on the bustling streets of Kissy Road in the East End lined with stalls selling everything from second-hand shoes to fake Sony radios; and had navigated our way through the commercial district centred around the towering cotton tree, down along Congo Road and across the poor shanty district of Kroo Bay where fishermen from Liberia reside and onto the relatively prosperous Aberdeen West End of town with it’s large, Lebanese-run supermarkets selling expensive imported foods and numerous white Toyota Landcruisers owned by any one of the multitude of aid agencies speeding down Wilkinson Road.
Having relaxed and recuperated in Freetown, it was time to hit the road again. Next stop, Faranah; over the border in Guinea. And so, two weeks later and we were once again navigating our way back through the town’s congested roads that weave around the hilly peninsula to get to the Kissy Shell station east of town where we could find a taxi to take us to Makeni – the prospect of retracing three days worth of road was not appealing. The plan was to taxi to Makeni and then continue by bike from there.
Taxi from the Kissy Shell
Not surprisingly, finding a willing taxi-driver wasn’t difficult. Surprisingly, finding a willing taxi-driver for a reasonable price without too many hustlers and onlookers wasn’t difficult either. In fact, it happened something like this… we arrived, asked where the taxi rank was but this brought with it unwanted attention from poor twenty- and thirty-some-things seeing white tourists as cash so we went and found a small stall where we could sit and have a cold coke (it had been a hot, sweaty, dirty cycle weaving through the black-smoke-emitting traffic, with the combined effect of the vehicles negating any progress towards a carbon-free economy back home), half-way through the refreshing drink Lars commented that it would be so simple if we could just make a call to order a taxi and have it pull up right where we were waiting, but before we had finished the coke a people-carrier pulled up and the driver came over to ask if we wanted a lift (no call necessary), he said he could take us to Makeni, we asked the price, he said 200,000 Leones, we said 100,000 Leones and soon enough he agreed. Before long, bikes were secured with a net in the back with the boot open and we were in the back seat, being driven away from Freetown along familiar roads at a speed significantly faster than we had arrived two weeks prior.
Back the way we came
In just three hours, rather than three days, we had passed the historically English named towns of Wellington, Hastings and Waterloo on the peninsula, out into the green lowlands and up into the drier north of the country. After a late lunch in Makeni we cycled out of town, continuing on the asphalt through Panlap and Binkoni before trying to find somewhere to camp. Finding somewhere to camp wasn’t so easy though. Wherever there was a potential spot there were people and whenever there was no-one else around the dry grass was too tall and too thick to leave the road. Eventually we found a small path and it led to raised, rocky ground overlooking the road.
BANG – A Long, Sleepless Night
I had a terrible night’s sleep – waking up to rustling in the grass nearby. Perhaps it was a person. Bleary-eyed, I looked out through my tent but I couldn’t see anyone. Silence. I check the clock – midnight. I roll over and start to drift off to sleep. And then, that rustling sound again. Closer. Louder. Then silence. I’m fully awake now. I hold my breath, listening for the sound. There it is. Rustling. And then silence. It sounds too loud to be a rodent or bird. Whatever it is, it sounds like it’s taking a few steps closer, then stopping and then a few more steps. But there were no cattle or goats nearby. Lying in the darkness, my imagination takes over – could it be a wild animal? I can feel my heart beating faster. Pounding. It couldn’t be a lion could it? Rustling. ‘Lars, did you hear that?’ I whister. Silence – no rustling, no response. Mind alert, I now vaguely recall something I had read earlier – in 2001 a local hunter shot a male lion in Sinkunia (north of where we were camping) with the help of supernatural powers, no less!. It was the first lion reportedly seen in Sierra Leone for 50 years. Now, if the only lion seen in 50 years was killed, it seems unlikely there was another one on the prowl outside my tent. The rational part of my brain kicking in, I decide it’s probably nothing to worry about, zip up the tent outer and try to go back to sleep. Dozing off…. and then, ‘BANG’ in the distance. ‘BANG… BANG. BANG… BANG. BANG’. What was that? Wide awake, mind alert again, trying to determine the source of the noise in the ensuing silence. Sounded like a shotgun. Strange – can’t imagine anyone hunting in the middle of the dark night. And then, another series of ‘BANG’s – a bit closer this time. Hmmm, my mind wanderz back to the warnings of Ward in Kindia about rebels in the border areas and a possible civil war brewing. Surely if there was trouble we would have heard something in town? More ‘BANG’s, but down the road past where we’re camping. Silence. Am I going crazy? And then yet more ‘BANG’s, nearer still, from the other side of the road. ‘Lars, did you hear that?’ Silence – no more bangs, no response either. I must be going crazy. If Lars can sleep through the night in blissful ignorance, then I am going to try and do the same. I roll over and try not to listen. Dozing off. How long have I been awake? I wonder….. and then I hear it – the faint sound of a cockerel crowing in the distance, followed by dogs barking, which sets off more dogs barking in surrounding villages and more cockerels crowing. Must be about 4am then. Great. I eventually drift off to sleep, only to wake with the morning light on my tent at six. No point trying to sleep now. I move outside, settle on the rock with my book and read until Lars emerges a couple of hours later, looking relatively (compared to me) well-rested and awake (and Lars is not a morning person by any stretch of my, clearly overactive, imagination!).
Bothered by Bees
The day’s cycle towards Kabala felt harder than it should. Initially the gentle ride winding between the rocky hills and massifs reaching skyward round every bend made for a scenic, enjoyable ride. Soon enough the road started snaking up the hills and soon enough I was on foot pushing. It’s not that the road was steep, but my legs just had nothing to give – a combination of being ill in Freetown and lack of sleep had totally sapped my energy.
Early in the afternoon we came to a bridge across a river. Unusually, there were no people washing there. The reason soon became clear when we tried to find a way down to the river’s edge; the banks were just too steep. It did look like a lovely spot to camp though and I certainly wasn’t going to complain about stopping early. Upstream we could see another, abandoned, bridge and we looked for a path to it through the overgrown roadside. It wasn’t long before a local passed through and we decided that this may not be an ideal place to rest – there were rather a lot of ants about. I started packing my things away and found my trainers to be the surrounding by a small swarm of bees. I picked the shoes up and put them on the floor while I packed away my clothes. But the bees then decided that I was far more interesting than my trainers. Lars, only a few feet away meanwhile complained about one pesky fly. Trying my hardest to ignore the buzzing around my head and arms, I hastily shoved my remaining gear in the panniers. But I couldn’t do it quick enough, and the ever increasing number of bees persisted to bother me. OUCH! Stung. That was it – I was out of there like a shot, forcing my bike through the undergrowth, regardless of the thorns, back to the bridge. Lars emerged a few minutes later. ‘There were quite a lot of bees weren’t there?’ Really?!
And off we cycled to find another place to camp, free of ants and bees. An hour later, getting desperate and tired, we eventually found somewhere, in a small clearing under some trees on the outskirts of a village. By now, the pain from the sting had subsided and an itch was intensifying as my forearm began to swell. I don’t know what it is with me and insects – they all seem to love me: mosquitoes, ants, termites, bees, spiders (the list of encounters is increasing) – the feeling is definitely not mutual.
Despite an itching arm, I slept well that night and woke up feeling strong. And from then on the cycling was enjoyable again. After Kabala, the tarmac ended and the road got rougher. But the rough roads make for fun cycling, especially when you’ve got lots of energy.
Guinea Re-Visited – Home Sweet Home
The border at Gberia Fotombu, on the Sierra Leone side was a hive of activity. By the time we emerged with our exit stamp, we had a large, and growing, entourage of locals following behind us up the road to the border. The police officer, garbling in an unidentifiable language, let us through and pointed us towards the middle of a field. We had asked where the Guinea control point was, but he clearly didn’t understand us. In the middle of the field was a small circle of concrete – this, apparently, marked the actual border. Fascinating! So off we cycled, 10km to the first Guinean village, Heremankono. Almost immediately, you could catch a faint sniff of that familiar smell of burning grass. And rather than tall grasses blocking the view from the road, you could see beyond, into the cut grass fields for grazing cattle, the occasional hut and rickety fencing marking property boundaries. It seems that the Guineans do a lot more with the land than their Sierra Leonean neighbours.
Heremankono, literally means, ‘Home Sweet Home’. And Home is exactly what it felt like. Back in familiar Guinea, with it’s quiet, kind, friendly people. It’s not that the Sierra Leoneans weren’t friendly, far from it, but children screaming ‘oporto’ (white) at you as you pass each village and half the adult villagers surrounding you and talking loudly about you and the bikes while you’re trying to have a quiet morning coffee can get rather tiring.
At the far side of Heremankono, there was one military officer in charge at the barrier, who with a commanding voice and firm handshake sent us to get our passports stamped. The commissar was a lady – it’s good to see women in positions of responsibility in regions where traditionally the women’s role has been in the home and fields. I had seen several women in police uniform in Sierra Leone also and Guinean women in military uniform also. Many of the control points in Sierra Leone had posters campaigning for women’s rights. ‘A woman has rights, a woman has a right to own property’, was one slogan, and below that someone had handwritten in ‘Really, it’s true’, as if to try and convince non-believers.
Over the Niger River and Into Faranah
Officially in Guinea, we didn’t have to cycle far to find somewhere to camp, which was a relief after the previous few nights. We were even able to cook for the first time and have a camp coffee in the morning before setting off on the final leg to Faranah.
It was an easy, mostly downhill cycle to the main tarmac road and then 14km/17km (depending on whether you chose the map or road marker distance) into town. I narrowly avoided running over a chameleon as I sped down the road, which was a relief for me seeing as I’d already managed to inadvertantly kill one in Morocco a few months ago, and they really are fascinating creatures.
On arrival in Faranah, we passed over the Niger River – my first glimspe of Africa’s third longest river (after the Nile and Congo), at 4030km. Being relatively close to the source, the river here is barely 30m wide and in places you can see the rocky bottom, now that it is well into the dry season. I can however confirm that it flows west to east as Scottish explorer Mungo Park discovered in 1796.
We asked four old men for directions to a good hotel and they pointed us up to Hotel Babylon. After checking in, a shower and a beer, we headed into town to make some enquiries….
Did anyone know where we could buy a boat, or someone who could build one for us?
The appeal of the Niger river is just too tempting and it’s time to swap pedals for paddles….
So, although there’s nothing for the tourist in Faranah, it’s a friendly town, with a sizeable market, a large variety of excellent street food and there’s even the occasional internet connection too. Which is good news, because we’re here for the rest of the week while Daman Camara, a local fisherman, gets busy transforming planks of wood into a six-metre boat that will (hopefully) take me, Lars, two bikes and lots of food, 750km through the Upper Niger National Park, across the border into Mali and on to Bamako.
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