Sunday, 24 February 2013

Sierra Leone part 1: towards Mount Bintumani

Sierra Leone
Ever heard of Mount Bintumani? Neither had I until Kevin from the Ghana Mountaineers suggested a trip to Sierra Leone to climb it. After five minutes on Google I had discovered it was West Africa’s second highest mountain, an easy-ish climb, and you might see chimpanzees. That was good enough for me; I signed up.

What wasn’t mentioned on the Internet was how tricky it is to actually get there. The problems started before we had even reached Sierra Leone. The country’s embassy in Accra was reluctant to give us visas, asking for increasingly obscure bits of paperwork.

Assuming they wanted a ‘little something’, Kevin and I visited in person, but we had misjudged the ambassador; he was genuinely concerned for our safety. ‘’It’s a very long way, Mount Bintumani,” he told us. “Not easy to reach at all.” We perhaps should have listened to his advice a bit more carefully.

Even Freetown, the capital city, isn’t that easy to reach. For reasons unclear, the country’s main airport was built at Lungi, on the opposite bank of the wide and fairly turbulent Sierra Leone River, necessitating a bumpy boat ride to even reach the capital.

And upon arrival, we discovered our preparations had been futile. The hotel denied all knowledge of our booking, despite a print-out of their email confirming it; the car hire company had lent all its vehicles to a mining company. It was beginning to feel as if Sierra Leone wanted to keep its mountain secret.

Fortunately, Kevin’s friends in Freetown helped us find an alternative hotel and car hire company, and as we sat down for a beer on the Sunday night, watching the sun set behind Lumley Beach it felt like the worst hurdles were behind us. We were wrong.


The directions to Mount Bintumani sounded reasonably simple: drive to the town of Kabala, then take the dirt road for three hours through the bush to a village called Sinekoro. Our driver, Alusine, picked us up bright and early in the morning and had few concerns about the trip. His nephew lived in Kabala and would know the way, he assured us. We loaded our bags and set out along the mountain road from Freetown.

In the bush
The five-hour drive to Kabala was relatively uneventful. Alusine was clearly a disciple of the ‘horn first, brakes later’ school of driving, and Sierra Leone has its fair share of potholes. But the main hardship was his love of Phil Collins. Hour after hour, the 80s balladeer crackled his greatest hits out of the speakers, Alusine’s well-loved tape clearly wearing from repeated use. Once was ok; by the eighth repeat, I was going slightly mad.

So it was a relief in more ways than one to reach Kabala. After a quick lunch stop, we collected Alusine’s nephew and headed off. This is where the real adventure starts, I thought, settling back to enjoy the ride as our 4x4 lurched from side to side along the rutted dirt road. Soon after leaving the town, we were deep in the bush. The road wound its way through lush green forest, occasionally broken by villages of mud huts, from which children appeared to run after our car, waving.

The police station. Not sure where.
After four hours, three questions circled in my head: why is it taking so long? Why is Alusine’s nephew so quiet? And where is the bloody mountain? You would expect to see West Africa’s second highest mountain from a fair distance away, but there was no sign of any peaks on the horizon. Dusk was upon us and when we were stopped at an isolated police road check, it seemed like a good opportunity to get directions.

Four friendly policemen were sat listening to the closing minutes of the League Cup final between Swansea and Bradford – there is nowhere too remote for the tentacles of English football – and they showed us a large but basic map in their headquarters.

Spot Sinekoro pt. I
Spot Sinekoro pt. II
Note to others heading to Bintumani – there are TWO villages called Sinekoro. And we had gone to the wrong one, which was nearer to the Guinean border than the mountain. Thirty miles out may not sound far, but in rural Sierra Leone, it’s a long way. We took photos of the map in the hope they might help us and set off once again.

With darkness falling and still little idea where we were, we pulled into a village called Gberifeh (we found the name out later; no signs out here) and decided to camp for the night. Alusine asked the elderly chief if we could stay over and we set up our tents, watched by a large crowd of intrigued villagers. Despite having been hired for one day only, Alusine pulled soap, toothbrush and a change of clothes from under his seat; clearly this wasn’t his first time in the bush with foreigners.

A crowd of children surrounded my tent, perhaps waiting for me to do something more interesting than just lie down. As a guest in their village it felt impolite to tell them to bugger off, but fortunately one of their mothers did the job for me, shooing them away. And after nearly 18 hours of travelling, I closed my eyes, trying to work out how we would find the mountain the next day and trying to get Phil Collins’ greatest hits out of my head.


‘Off the beaten track’ is a cliché used with wild abandon by guidebooks (and indeed travel blogs) but never again will I use it lightly after our trip the next morning. Alusine had managed to elicit village-to-village directions from the chief, and we headed along through them, Alusine ticking off each one as we passed through.

Is this a road?
Three hours later we were halfway down the list but still no sign of the mountain; I noted that the petrol gauge was also approaching the halfway mark. My confidence wasn’t helped by the assurances we received in each village. Directions in this part of Sierra Leone consist solely of ‘not far’ and ‘go straight’; I asked Alusine to double-check with a passing farmer. 

"How de morning? Dey go op di mountain", he asked in Krio.
"Yes, yes, Bintumani dis way ", came the reply.
"How is de road?", he asked.
"De road is good", we were assured. 
Crossing the Seli River
I considered the single motorbike track and 45° slope ahead of us,  and the dropping petrol gauge; I concluded there weren’t really many options other than to keep going.

And then, five minutes later, through a break in the trees, we saw it … Mount Bintumani, straight ahead. Not exactly close, but visible for the first time, a mere day and a half into our trip. With renewed enthusiasm, we sped onwards, crossing the Seli River which cuts off the mountain during the rainy season. It took three hill starts and a lot of burnt clutch to get out on the other side, but despite the car lurching violently as its wheels skidded, we got through.

The last few villages were ticked off, and we pulled into Sinekoro – the right one, with the Loma Mountains rearing up just behind. It has taken nearly 30 hours, several wrong turns, Alusine’s skill behind the wheel, and nerves of steel to cope with Phil Collins on repeat, but finally – against all odds – we had made it to Bintumani. 

Another day in paradise with Phil

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