And finally….the final part of the journey, from No Man’s Land to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
Noises in the Night
Camped in No Man’s Land, I woke numerous times in the night to a rattling sound coming from underneath the tent, which seemed to come from the left of my head one moment and then further to the right a moment later. Every time I turned over, this rapid drumming sound would start up again. When I left the tent to go to the toilet, the rattling sound seemed to follow my footsteps. At first I was somewhat concerned but I found the source of the noise…. tiny ants which beat their backsides on leaves in rhythmic vibrations, the tap-tapping a warning signal to others. Nothing to worry about then, except lack of sleep perhaps.
For those who know me, you’ll know I’m generally a rational, logical person – except when it comes to spiders. I have a completely irrational fear of them, even the harmless little ones you get in the UK. So when I was folding up my tent and saw the huge body and eight legs lying on the groundsheet, you can imagine my reaction. I leapt back, my heart skipping a beat and then instantly my resting heart-rate doubled. And there I stood, sweating, fixated on this huge arachnid. At this stage, it was lying in such a way I was convinced it was dead – trampled when I had erected the tent the evening prior. My reaction would have been magnified greatly if I thought it was alive.
Even dead spiders I hate. So I reached for a long stick and went about flicking the carcass off my tent so I could put it away. And as I poked the spider, the seemingly dead carcass sprang into life, body perched atop the eight hairy legs in a crouched, ready to leap stance. ‘Oh CRAP!!! It’s alive,’ I shouted loudly, but with only the surrounding trees hearing me. ‘I hate spiders,’ I whined as I realised I was going to have to deal with this one myself, without the aid of a hoover which is my preferred method of removal back home! First things first though, I removed my flip-flops and put on my slightly more protective trainers and then I dug out my camera for a photo. It didn’t look like much in pixels, so I decided to put something next to it to show it was nearly half the size of my foot and with that threw my flip-flop nearby. I then went found a five foot long branch, but when I returned, the spider was gone. Great. Out of sight, out of mind, I tried to convince myself.
I was about to pick up my flip-flops, when the thought occurred to me that just perhaps, the spider had crawled underneath them. So with the end of the five-foot long branch, I flipped over my flip-flops. Ahhh! Found the spider again, now clinging tightly on top of the left flip-flop. Have I mentioned, I really hate spiders. With an urge of annoyance that I was letting a spider take up so much of my time and the fear turning into hatred, I poked the spider and it jumped of away from me. I poked again and it leapt in response, scurried a few feet and stopped. We repeated these poke and leap manoeuvres until I realised it was heading for my bike, but I managed to usher it away until eventually I lost sight of it in the undergrowth of fallen leaves.
I wasted no time after this, packing up my remaining things and getting back to the relative safety of the dirt road, to cycle to the Sierra Leone border thinking I would rather encounter a rebel than another arachnid…
Another Bag Search
I arrived at the immigration control post and was greeted by a friendly officer, who eagerly stamped my passport and proceeded with an exuberant inquisition when I mentioned I had cycled from England. Soon, he was shouting out to his colleagues and friends about me – this girl, she cycled from England, it took 6 months… 6months!!! I was being asked a whole array of questions from other people and was wondering if I’d ever get across the border into Sierra Leone. Fortunately the officer noticed my slight fidgeting as I glanced over repeatedly at my bike, searching for an exit strategy and he told everyone to shut up and let me get on my way to Freetown.
With my escape facilitated, I wheeled my bike around the barrier and was about to pedal off when I heard a loud, authoritative, ‘You, Where are you going? Come here.’ I turned around and saw a policeman pointing me toward a small, wooden hut. It seemed I had missed the police control. I slowly followed the policeman into the small hut, who then painstakingly filled my details into a notebook. He then insisted on checking my bags. Not another bribe demand I thought. I’m not sure if this policeman was after a bribe though. His comments, ‘I LOVE your bike’ (yes, me too) and ‘I LOVE this book’ (yes, it’s a good book – one called War of the World, which I did think could cause more of a problem) seemed like subtle hints that he wanted them. Eventually he got bored of the contents of my bags and let me leave though. And so I cycled into Sierra Leone.
Bike, Sweat and Tantrums
The ‘road’ through No Man’s Land and into Sierra Leone was in a significantly worse state than the Guinea side. The track was narrow in places, sometimes cycling over slick slabs of rock and other times guiding the bike carefully over and around the large rocks protruding haphazardly. Occasionally, the road would smooth out enough to gather a reasonable pace on the downhill sections, but would soon end in yet another incline where I regularly had to get off the bike and push.
This northern region of Sierra Leone is primarily tropical forest. The scenery makes for interesting cycling, but the associated humidity levels (around 90%) certainly do not. Within half an hour of cycling, I was covered from head to toe in a grimy layer of sweat and my clothes were totally drenched through. I know I sweat a lot, but this was impressive. Wringing out my shorts was effective until ten minutes more of cycling meant they were dripping again. I looked a right state.
Eventually, I came to the sign for the Otamba-Kilimi National Park. Myself and Lars had originally planned to visit the park. But our enthusiasm for the detour had dwindled somewhat when we had heard that the last remaining elephant herd had been wiped out by poachers only a month or two previously. There’s plenty of other wildlife there though and so we decided we would see how we felt when we arrived. Me, I was tired, had no local currency and almost no food so had earlier decided I would skip the National Park and continue to Kamakwe – the first sizeable village – where I could get money and therefore food.
Lars was ahead of me by a couple of hours – I was being regularly updated by locals I passed on his progress – but I didn’t know whether he had decided to make the detour. But as I came to the National Park sign, I saw on a scrap of notepaper – HELEN!!! I slammed on the breaks and screeched to a halt. The note was clearly from Lars (I recognised the paper and handwriting), but what did this exclamation mean? I eventually concluded that since he had stuck the paper on the sign next to the arrow pointing in the direction of the park headquarters 3.7miles away, he must have made the detour.
I then made the decision to go and meet up with him – he wouldn’t be visiting the park unless he had money and food, so I wouldn’t need to worry about that. And so, extremely fatigued, I set off on the even smaller, bumpier track. This track was over the toughest terrain yet and on almost every up-hill, I was forced to get off and drag the bike up due to the steep incline. Not even 4×4’s can take this route.
I finally arrived at the park headquarters – with no energy left or strength remaining in my arms – and enquired after Lars. The warden looked at me bemused – Another cyclist? A white person? A tourist? There was nobody except him, me and a guide in the vicinity. I found a chair, sank down into it in my sweat-laden shorts and laid my head on my hands. Quietly I hoped that when I looked up again I’d be sitting in a cafe in Kamakwe. But no, I was sat next to a small circular hut overlooking the river – scenic yes, but I wasn’t in a mood to appreciate it.
I contemplated staying the night, but with no food and not many other people to talk to, it didn’t seem a very appealing option. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to drag my bike back to the ‘main’ road either. But I wasn’t going to have more energy the next day if I didn’t eat anything either. With that, I ate the last remnants of my food and set off back along the track I’d just come. At the bottom of the steepest hill, I got off my bike and just stood there, with no strength in my arms I was contemplating unloading the bike and hauling the bags up separately. A teenager carrying a large load on his head came along and waited. I told him to go first – I was going to take a while. But he refused and just stood there waiting for me. Eventually I bit the bullet and with all the force I could muster, began pushing the bike upwards. I pushed the bike with surprising ease and speed and wondered how this could be physically possible and then I looked behind – there was the teenager, one hand holding the carefully balanced load on his head, the other hand firmly gripping the back of my bike and pushing equally hard. I don’t know how he managed it, but I was certainly thankful!
Three hours after seeing Lars’ sign, I finally returned to it, having made a completely pointless 12km detour. Now why had Lars put a sign up pointing me in the direction of the park, where he clearly hadn’t gone himself? Perhaps, it then occurred to me, he had written a message on the back of the note… I wonder why I didn’t think to check earlier? I set off in the direction of Kamakwe, but immediately turned around – I was curious, I went back to the note still taped to the sign. I looked closely – there appeared to be something showing through from the underside. I peeled up the corner of the note and saw it – writing on the back. I tore the paper off the sign:
‘Hi Helen! I made it here – I got arrested at the border but they let me go after 10mins! NOT going to the park. Cycling down to the ferry and on to Kamakwe.’
I AM SUCH AN IDIOT. A rage against my own stupidity came over me and I ripped the note into little pieces, threw them at the floor and kicked the sign for good measure. Somewhat surprised at my own outburst, I looked up to see a local woman watching me with wonder. But then a wave of calm came over me and I wearily got back on the bike and set off down to the ferry and on towards Kamakwe.
Ripped-Off at the River
I arrived at the river and the realisation dawned that I still didn’t have any local currency. Body and mind exhausted, I reluctantly asked the price to be paddled across in a pirogue (25,000Le) and asked if I could pay in Guinea Francs or CFA. I was so caught up in the shocking exchange rates they were offering I failed to cotton on to the fact that 25,000Le was an extortionate cost for such a short river hop. Having finally agreed an acceptable rate of exchange for my Guinea Francs, I handed over the cash and so unwittingly paid for an expensive crossing. It was only later on in the day, when I was recalculating the maths that I realised I had been done for.
Crawling into Kamakwe
The final seven miles into Kamakwe, I wasn’t sure I would make. My legs gave out on the up-hills and forced me to push. My arms could barely manage to haul the bike up. I would stop at regular intervals. One hill got the better of me and I decided I would have to stop and camp. It was getting late and I figured I could manage without food for one evening and then cycle the final couple of miles to Kamakwe in the morning for breakfast. But the verge was steep and despite all my efforts I couldn’t lift the bike over it and into the field. Unloading the bags seemed like a mammoth task and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get off the road quick enough without people seeing me. So I resigned myself to carry on pushing and cycling.
Eventually I made it to Kamakwe and after much enquiring, eventually found someone willing to change my cash for local currency. Finally, I could buy food. Much to my despair I was unable to find a restaurant and so had to make do with snacks from a shop. Fortunately I found a large shop with plenty of goods – not like the shops in Guinea! My stomach ruling my decisions, I bought bread and cheese triangles (I hadn’t seen these since the Sahara!), biscuits and nuts and oranges and coke and fanta.
I cycled cautiously out of town in darkness, barely able to make out the gravel road. At the first opportunity, I pulled my bike off the road and set up the tent in the midst of thick undergrowth. I lay down, staring up at the stars. The end of a long day. I drank the coke and made a sandwich but was unable to eat much – my stomach was not enjoying the food. I nibbled instead at the nuts and soon enough fell asleep, only to awaken a few hours later with a rumbling stomach.
I unzipped the tent and reached for my shoes. Eww! They’re alive! I threw them from the tent and shone the torch… they were infested by termites, so many of them my trainers looked like a writhing black mass. My stomach rumbled again and with increased urgency I started searching for my flip-flops. I had been reluctant to venture out in flip-flops in the thick grass; the morning’s spider encounter still fresh in my mind; but the grumbling that was rising from the depth of my guts was urging me into action.
The next morning I woke as the sun shone onto my tent. I was still tired, but felt I had enough in my legs to cycle a bit. So I donned my sweat-drenched cycling clothes, which hadn’t dried a bit overnight and packed up. When I lifted the bike off the ground however, I noticed I had a flat tyre. Great – Just what I needed. Changing a flat tyre should be an easy process. It’s not so easy when you realise the two spare inner tubes you’ve just bought in Kindia, and the only spares you have, don’t fit the bike and you don’t have much water to try and find the puncture in the original tube. An hour of removing, fiddling, fixing and re-fitting, I finally had the tyre fully inflated and was able to set off again.
Fortunately, after Kamakwe, the gravel road is kept in good condition and regularly smoothed out. So although I was tired, the cycling was relatively easy – there were a lot less hills too. After 10km I was cycling through a large village when I heard, ‘HELEN!!!’ I braked and looked around. Who was calling my name? And then I saw Lars’ face peer out of a nearby wooden shack. ‘I’m just having breakfast.’ he called out. Coffee; good idea I thought and went to join him to catch up on our solo adventures of the last few days. I was very jealous that while I had camped, wet and hungry and tired; he had been invited to stay at a missionary, where he ate a belated Christmas dinner, washed his clothes and slept on a mattress.
‘White’ By Any Other Name
The cycle together towards Makeni was relatively uneventful. We passed numerous villages where screaming children would run towards us shouting ‘Oporto! Oporto!’ (White!), which soon became as tiresome as being called ‘Toubab’ in Senegal. There was even a young child, still being carried on his mother’s back, who when he saw us pointed and said ‘Oporto’. Incredible – I think it may have been his first word!
Hearing ‘Oporto’ may have been tiring, but I was called enough other names while cycling through the villages of Sierra Leone to break the monotony – ‘British Lady’, ‘Strong woman’, ‘White girl I like your style’ and the less accurate, rather bemusing, call of ‘Chinese Man’!
No Money, Just Palm Wine
My reaction at reaching the tarmac road near Makeni was one of relief. It felt like I’d made it to the other side. We cycled into Makeni and onwards in the direction of Freetown with surprising speed and ease. Cycling seemed enjoyable again. The kilometres seemed to fly by and village by village we neared ever closer to the Freetown peninsula.
The only real problem that arose, was a lack of money – Lars had lost (or had stolen) most of his Leones and therefore we had barely £2.50 in local currency between us. Rather than the hassle of hustling over exchange rates on the black market, we decided we could make Freetown on our small change.
We ate frugally during the day and were looking forward to a huge meal of pasta in the evening – our only remaining food of an real substance. Alas, it was not to be. With only 50km to Freetown, the frequency of villages and towns was increasing and finding a secluded, stealthy place to camp was became impossible. As we entered the village of Kwama, Lars spotted a school and suggested we ask if we can camp there for the night. A genius idea. After a brief enquiry with one of the teachers, we were given space in a large, roofed quadrangle to pitch our tents and supplied with fresh water (which we had been struggling to find since at all the wells we passed the pumps had broken). The downside of camping in the school was that we were unable to cook dinner and so had to make do with cold mash potato. Not exactly appetizing, or filling.
Later in the evening, the school teacher invited us to drink palm wine with him. A kind offer, but one we declined – a sip of this potent alcoholic beverage would have been disastrous on my empty, ill stomach and so I retired for an early night.
This was the second time that day I had been offered palm wine… while asking in a town where I could get some drinking water, a man pointed at a half-full jerry can and said to help myself. I confirmed that the contents were OK for drinking and then a young lad came over to assist me with filling my water bottle. He began pouring, but it wasn’t water that came out of the can but a slightly murky, frothy liquid. I commented that this surely wasn’t safe water to drink. The lad just laughed… ‘No water… Wine! You still want?’ Er, no thank you. It wasn’t exactly the rehydrating refreshment I was hoping for. I explained I needed water again and soon enough I had what I was after. The whole time, the man who had pointed me to the jerry can just sat there laughing and swaying. I think he’d already drunk the first half of the jerry can.
The following morning we road with determination through Waterloo, Hastings and on into the suburbs and shanties of the east side of Freetown. A stop for a full English fry-up in the centre, followed by a quick pumping up of my flat back tyre (again) and a further 3km ride along the busy streets and we arrived at Jay’s Guesthouse (our place of residence for the last 10days).
We made it!
Freetown is great. The people friendly. The food good. I don’t want to leave yet! But continue on the road I must…. it’s back into Guinea next.
There is so much to write about Freetown. I hope I get a chance to tell you about it, but that will have to wait for another update.
One thing of real interest for me, was visiting the Ola During Children’s Hospital – the hospital the Welbodi Partnership is working at – the charity I am fundraising for using my justgiving page… that’s in the next update.
After 6months on the road, I have finally get to see the hard work that going on, and how the money you have donated in supporting me, is being used.
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