Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Sierra Leone part 2: Mount Bintumani

Arriving at Sinekoro just after midday, Kevin, Miriam and I were keen to make up for the time lost driving around the farthest corners of Sierra Leone. Not so fast … things are not rushed in this part of the world.

First we had to meet the chief of Sinekoro and the village elders, to ask permission to climb Mount Bintumani and hire a guide and porter. The first part was easy; we were welcomed as the first visitors that year, the River Seli having only just dropped sufficiently to allow cars through. The second part not so: “They are all off in their fields; you will have to go tomorrow”. 

On the way
 This was not an attractive proposition in a village without any obvious supply of beer. Fortunately Alusine, our driver, once again came to the rescue. After a long discussion in Krio that involved most of the village and a lot of pointing, it was agreed that Hassan and Moses, two teenagers, would take us and we could leave straight away. We repacked our bags, watched by a crowd of excitable schoolchildren, and set off towards Bintumani.

Shortly after leaving the village and its farms we reached the rain forest that covers much of the Loma Mountains, of which Bintumani is the highest peak. The forest canopy was alive with bird calls and even the occasional howl from a monkey; always hidden from view but seeming close nonetheless. The sunlight glistened through the leaves and we saw colourful flowers and peculiar fruits. I marvelled at the experience of being in an unspoilt montane rain forest: the sights, the sounds, the smells.

In the rain forest
For about an hour. By then, my T-shirt was drenched, my heavy backpack was dragging me back down the steep slope, and the forest was no longer an environmental wonder, but rather a collection of spiky green things that caught my clothes, tripped me up or flicked into my eyes.

And our first proper break provided little respite. Camp 1 is the first water refilling point on the path, making it an obvious stopping place, but it was also overrun with bees when we arrived. They buzzed around our heads and between our legs, around our drinks and food. One brave soul then made its way up my shorts. In case it needed clarifying, an angry bee in your pants is not a pleasant experience; after some frantic swatting and swearing, and one dead bee later, we set off once more on the steep path through the forest.

After four hours, I had had enough. Our guides showed little awareness of our exhaustion or heavy packs (they hadn’t offered to carry them), hurrying us along without a rest. Having finally caught up with Moses, I asked impatiently what the rush was. “Hassan is afraid of the forest, and I am afraid of the dark”, he told me simply. So much for our fearless guides.
Camp fire
They were no doubt as relieved as us to reach the forest edge, where the shoulder of the slope breaks abruptly into a clearing – Camp 2, our target for the day. It was instantly clear why people go to such effort to climb Mount Bintumani. The view across the Loma Mountains was unforgettable: the sun was setting behind an endless expanse of misty peaks that arose from the surrounding carpet of forest. I found a rock still warm from the sun, lay back and admired the spectacular scene below me.

Hassan made a fire, on which we were soon cooking dinner. We ate beans and drank tea with the calls of baboons, chimpanzees and antelope coming from the surrounding forest.

The Loma Mountains

First glimpse of the summit
After a quick breakfast, Moses led the way to the summit. The route was easier than the previous day, across open grassland broken only by patches of forest in the small valleys. The grass is burnt each year – possibly by farmers, possibly by natural fires – and the charred clumps gave the landscape an other-worldly feel as we approached the rocky summit peak.

To the top
The Loma Mountains are protected, partly as a forest reserve but perhaps more by their inaccessibility. There is little logging or hunting in the forest and the region is still full of wildlife, albeit mostly hidden from sight. We saw a troop of baboons, several rock hyraxes and a lone buffalo grazing far below. But it was easy to believe that much more lives among the slopes and forests of the mountains, safely away from almost all human interference.

The final climb
That remoteness became apparent for a different reason as we neared the final steep climb through the rocks to the summit. Normally I would ascend such a climb with little concern, but I was suddenly aware that I was a long, long way from any form of help. A day and a half from Sinekoro; another bumpy day’s journey from Kabala, and I wasn’t even sure there was a hospital there. With some extremely careful bum-shuffling, in spite of a still-raw bee sting, I made it carefully up the slope and onto the summit plateau.

Regardless of how high, or how demanding the climb, the summit routine is always the same. A drink, a snack, a photo – this time complete with the Ghana Mountaineers banner Kevin had lugged all the way from Accra – and then back down.

At the summit
We picked up Hassan at Camp 2 and descended through the forest. Going downhill through the rain forest was no easier – leaf litter doesn’t make a good path – and my legs were barely functioning as we neared the village again.

Alusine was waiting for us, fairly impatiently. He hadn’t called his boss – or, more importantly, his wife – for three days, with no mobile coverage in the bush, and he was keen to get going. His nephew also looked ready to go home, and will probably think twice about offering directions again.

A plant
Caked in sweat and mud from the walk, I pondered whether we should get into his car before washing; I wouldn’t have let three such filthy people into my car. But then I wouldn’t have driven my car through the bush, across deep rivers or along narrow motorbike tracks. Alusine was clearly a more laid-back soul than me, or maybe it wasn’t his car. We waved goodbye to villagers of Sinekoro and piled in.

Bumping along the road, I looked back on our trip, not least the mistakes we had made. We hadn’t taken a map; our guides hadn’t brought any food or shelter (they shared ours); I hadn’t considered that Sinekoro would have no tourist facilities beyond a committee of elders to make things even more difficult. And the hike had taken us to an extremely remote location, without doubt the furthest I had ever been from civilisation. But if you go looking for an adventure, you can’t complain if you find one. And Mount Bintumani is certainly an adventure.

Mount Bintumani


  1. Jings, great episode. I go out of my way to hide from adventure in Hobbit-esque fashion, but that looks like quite a climb. Bees in your pants though - that's no good. And I bet the bees are harder in Africa than they are in Surrey.

  2. They most certainly are. Surrey bees are notorious for being soft as shite.