We leave the beautiful beach of Robertsport behind and cross over into Sierra Leone where it's slow travelling as the roads get even worse, short distances take a full day of driving to undertake.
Our first stop in Sierra Leone should have been pretty uneventful, bush camping in the middle of nowhere between the towns of Zimmi and Kenema, but as tends to happen in Africa it may feel like there is nothing or no one around, someone always pops out of the darkness, in this instance a visit to the chief in the nearest village and half a dozen beers ensures we have a peaceful nights rest.
The town of Kenema is our first 'real' town in Sierra Leone which we reach after passing through Gola Rainforest, Kenema is a diamond town with just about every trader it feels selling not only general trade but also diamonds, all the shop signs have a flashy picture of a diamond on it. The town itself has a western/cowboy feel to it, it feels like swinging wooden doors of a saloon and a few horses out front wouldn't be entirely out of place here. For us it's a break from the long drive and a chance to exchange some cash with any random in the market, it's seems pretty much all the people in the market have a little dodgy room out back where they'll happily change your dollars or euros into Leone's, it's also our first introduction to the heavy Lebanese culture that we soon learn is quite spread throughout Sierra Leone, for us that means lots of hommus, pita bread and schwarma.
We spend a few days at Tiwai Island, staying in the small village of Kambama. Tiwai Island is only 12 square kilometres but is home to a significant number of primate species, it is also home of the rare pigmy hippo, which no one seems to have seen and alas we were no more fortunate. We spend the days here walking through the dense forest, watching monkeys playing in the trees, enjoying the different sounds of the rainforest, it's a really peaceful spot offering lots of interesting walks and canoe rides down the river and a very peaceful place to camp overlooking the river.
The villagers of Kambama are excellent hosts, enthusiastically welcoming us and inviting us into the village and sharing their way of life with us. Many of the young toddlers haven't seen a white personal before so when they see us they scream in absolute terror, the parents try and fix this by just dumping the kid in our arms making them even more terrified, they must eventually get over it as the majority of kids are like most African kids just curious and wanting us to give them some much needed attention. One little kid constantly wants us to hold him, we soon realise though it's not because he particularly likes us but he enjoys the reflection of himself in our sunnies!
Along with one of the other girls I'm travelling with we are offered to help the local ladies prepare our lunch, chopping and boiling cassava and preparing a sauce that is made using various fish heads and other fish bits to give it a fishy flavour, it doesn't sound too arduous but not having any of the usual cooking items we are used to it's a lot harder for us and keeps the local ladies very entertained watching us struggling with tasks that they consider really basic, something as simple as slicing a piece of casava on the palm of your hand (why bother with a chopping board when you have two perfectly good hands) with an exceedingly sharp knife causes our natural instincts to kick in and we struggle to chop on our palm like they do, they patiently keep showing us but I prefer to keep both my hands. Of course no cooking session is complete without them taking us down to pump water and try rather pathetically to carry it on our heads.
Surrounding Tiwai island are about a dozen villages and I head out on a 4-5hour hike to see two of them besides Kamamba, we hike through dense forest filled with monkeys and birds, coffee, cocoa, banana, plantain, cassava, cashew nut and rice paddies, during the dry season it seems there is an abundance of food to be had but come the wet season they subsist on a diet mainly of manyok (a sweetish root vegetable, not quite a potato or sweet potato, somewhere in between).
At each village we have to go and visit the chief with our guide translating why we are here, again we are welcomed warmly and given time to sit and rest with the chief before having a look around the village. Given we can't speak the local language and they can't speak English, it's a bit awkward with us perched on their best chairs surrounded by the villagers and with the chief just broadly smiling at us but we find just a few smiles and the occasional wave seems to make everyone pleased. At the second village it's a female chief, which is the first I've seen, here they also give us a gift of black toumba, which are a plant pod that houses a seed surrounded by a sweet almost sherbet like powder that you suck as well as a refreshing coconut, the juice is very welcomed after 3hours walking in the heat and then the flesh inside is really fresh and sweet.
One of the 'things to do' so we are told is to attend a libation ceremony, apparently it's popular with tourists who have struggled to get pregnant (or their partners have), whatever is done at this mystical ceremony magically takes care of the problem for them, it takes a lot of explaining by Lauren and I that we don't want to participate in one of these ceremonies, it doesn't help that our tour leader jokingly tells the guide how much we want too, a lot of bad French and charades by us finally gets us out of the situation.
I really enjoyed our time in Tiwai but unfortunately it was time to say goodbye and continue making our way to Freetown. It's long drive days through to Freetown, we do a short overnight stop in Bo, where we slept on the tennis court of a hotel that also doubles up as a nightclub which gave us the worst sleep of the trip but probably the most laughter the day after (no one knows the song itself but it was played over and over at ear splitting volume and just had the chorus 'I love you, I love you, I love you') and another afternoon and overnight stop at Bureh beach on the Freetown peninsula, a pristine beach that was much welcomed relaxation time after the night in Bo before we finally arrived at Freetown.
Freetown is the end point for the first leg of our overloading trip a few of the guys we've been travelling with leave at this point and quite a few others join us for the second leg to Dakar, so it's a chance for those of us who have travelled from Accra to have some downtime away from the majority of the group and just relax and do our own thing.
For me I enjoy having a wander through Freetown which seems to be nestled in a valley, surrounding the city are hills where the majority of houses seem to have been built up, on the other side runs the ocean. At the lower parts of the hill before getting into the city proper is where all the slums seem to be, is a bit of a contrasting view, between some of the nicer places higher on the hill and the sprawl and chaos of the slums amongst dirty rivers and rubbish down below. The city itself compared to other African cities is relatively quite, not too chaotic and easy to walk around without much hassle, towards the centre is a large cotton tree which offers a great respite from the heat today but in the past is the spot where slaves were traded. Along the beach there are some really nice restaurants with beautiful sea breezes and fantastic views, it's a good city to have a bit of downtime before starting out on the next leg of the trip which takes us back into Guinea, then to Guinea Bissau, The Gambia and Senegal.