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

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

Sunday, 17 February 2013


Tudu station
A long journey by tro-tro – the clunky minibuses that serve as Ghana’s bus network – can be viewed in two ways. It can be a window into typical Ghanaian life: the chatter among the passengers; the sights along the way, such as the hawkers that crowd the windows at every stop; or the radio programmes, which could be anything from vibrant highlife music to a phone-in testing Bible knowledge.

Or it can be a complete pain in the arse. Literally; the cushions on most seats lost any sense of padding years ago. Our trip to Keta Lagoon started firmly in the latter camp. Forty-five minutes through Accra’s horrendous traffic to Tudu bus station; an hour waiting for the tro-tro to fill up; then another trip back across the city. Sweaty, cramped and irritable, we passed our flat on the outskirts of Accra nearly three hours after leaving it.

Guinea pigs
Ultimately, the pay-off in these journeys lies in the destination. And Meet Me There ecolodge, near Keta Lagoon in Ghana’s southeast corner, made the stiff backs worthwhile. The lodge’s main attraction is its small saltwater lagoon for swimming, and the menagerie in the grounds: guinea pigs, rock pythons, two dwarf crocodiles and several dogs, including three very playful puppies. The resident goats had given birth that day, and their kid stumbled about while they carried on eating. Bright red fire finches and seedcrackers competed for the seeds in the sand. I even had a crab nip my little toe, something I didn’t think happened outside of Beano cartoons.

A West African dwarf crocodile
The only sad note was the vervet monkey, which is kept chained up in the corner. The future for this creature, and all the other animals, should be release in a nature reserve, which the owners are trying to create nearby. This is, naturally, taking a long time to negotiate with local people and landowners. Hopefully for the monkey’s sake, it won’t take much longer.


After spending most of Saturday lazing by the lagoon and playing with the puppies, Hannah and I decided to explore the local area that afternoon. I had an urge to see the Volta Estuary; it must be something to do with studying geography.

We caught a tro-tro for the (mercifully short) distance to Atetite, a small town by the river. As we stood, wondering which way to head, a man came over and introduced himself as Prospect – many Ghanaians have wonderfully descriptive names like this; maybe it’s where the Spice Girls got the idea. Having just finished his shift as a taxi driver, Prospect offered to show us around.

Atetite beach
The next two hours were probably the best tour we have had in Ghana. Prospect showed us the stunning beach by the estuary, an expanse of bright white sand completely devoid of litter, beach huts, anything except a few fishermen. Just behind the beach was a series of small lagoons, similar to the one at Meet Me There and dotted with wading birds and lined with palm trees. We wandered slowly, soaking up the serenity of this unspoilt corner of Ghana.

It’s perhaps surprising that the beach is so unspoilt, but two factors preserve its underdeveloped nature. The region hard to reach, being several miles off the Keta loop road, which itself lies some distance of the Accra–Togo road.

The other factor is the severe coastal erosion in this part of Ghana. The thin strip of land that separates the vast Keta Lagoon from the sea is being rapidly eaten away and is threatened by sea level rise, despite the efforts to reinforce the land. Maybe that is also deterring investors. But, for now at least, it is one of Ghana’s finest coastal destinations.

Smoking fish
After leaving the beach, Prospect introduced us to the people in his village and the nearby farms. A group of women showed us how they smoke the small fish caught nearby, and children ran out of their huts, smilingly demanding to be photographed. This informal tour was a stark contrast to the organised tour to Nzulezo; there, the daily stream of tourists has understandably made people resentful of people poking around their homes, or indifferent at least. In Atetite, every person we met waved, smiled or stopped to shake hands.

Only on our tro-tro journey back to Meet Me There did we find someone not pleased to see us. A small baby, wrapped tightly to her mother’s back, took one glimpse at my white face and started howling, a petrified look in her eyes. The wailing got louder, much to the amusement of the other passengers. “She doesn’t like you because you are white”, explained an old man, laughing racistly and smelling strongly of palm wine. But given the warmth of our welcome elsewhere, it was hard to feel too offended.

In Atetite