Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Freetown to Bissau: Trekking, Waterfalls and Dirt Roads in Guinea's Fouta Djalon Highlands

Our Freetown to Dakar trip started off with a couple of nights in the Sierra Leone capital, with time to explore the city and beyond while we waited for visa applications to be processed. Above is the view from the hotel some of us stayed in, looking out over the sprawling city landscape and the Atlantic Ocean. The Freetown peninsula is dominated by the mountains with the city squeezed in between the hills and the sea.  

Below are some photos from the Railway Museum in Freetown which some of us visited on a guided tour of the old town. It was great to see these old locomotives so lovingly restored after being saved from being cut up for scrap metal!

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is located just a short drive for the city centre in the surrounding hills. The sanctuary provides a refuge for chimps from across the region, mainly to those rescued from very poor conditions in captivity. The chimps are rehabilitated to live in more natural conditions, though it has not yet been possible to reintroduce them into the wild.

From Freetown we drove across the border into Guinea and spent the night camping next to a river near Coyah, offering a great opportunity for a swim and to wash away the dirt after a sweaty drive day and border crossing! The following morning we headed into Conakry to apply for more visas for the journey ahead.

While in Conakry we finally managed to pay a visit to the Conakry Refugee School, having been approached back in 2014 regarding a possible visit. The school was initially set up to provide an education for English-speaking children fleeing conflicts in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia. The UNHCR stopped funding the school some years ago, leaving an English-speaking refugee community in Guinea without access to education. Friends of Conakry Refugee School is a charity based in the UK, and since 2005 has provided support to the school by subsidising school fees for students and sponsoring those whose families cannot afford an education. Among numerous other valuable initiatives they provide a meal for the students each day (which has greatly reduced the schools drop out rate); they enable older children to take their exams; and in recent months they've worked hard to reduce the impact of the Ebola outbreak on the local community.

On our Dakar to Freetown trip in November 2015, we dropped off some supplies at the school which FRCS had sent to us in the UK before leaving for this seasons trips. This time we were able to visit the school for the first time and see their valuable work in action. Below, Al is making a donation to the school (on behalf of the passengers) which was given to help with school fees for those children whose families struggle to afford them.

From Conakry we made our way north up a winding mountain road to the Fouta Djalon highlands. On the way we encountered several broken down trucks blocking the road ahead, so we settled in for a long wait. Fortunately we were on the move again before we'd even finished our first game of Scrabble!  

We enjoyed some stunning views from our first bush camp on this leg of the trip. Alexi and Zoe are in the photo above. 

We experienced 2 days of stunning views on the bumpy roads leading into the Fouta Djalon. Below is a photo of Mike, Steve and Jan washing off the dust as they swim in the Konkouré river!

Above is a photo of Zoe, Jan and Chris as they headed off on a trek. Below, Lexi, Zoe, Melissa and Alice in the surrounding hills.

Another stunning drive on a rough road took us further into the Fouta Djalon region. Above is a photo of some of the peaks we passed on the way, and below is a shot of Jan boarding the ferry with Aminah to cross the river.

Guinea's Fouta Djalon is a real highlight of any visit to the region. This stunning part of the country offers an incredible variety of scenery, with many special places tucked away among the mountain terrain. 

Above is a photo of us exploring a slot canyon: Al climbing among the vines, Mike squeezing out from a gap, and Alice peeping out from a hole in the rock. Below is a photo of Jase and Alice swimming in a deceptively deep pool.

We spent several nights sleeping in the compound of a local family, trekking by day and enjoying local food and warm hospitality in the evenings. 

We experienced hot weather during our time here and luckily had plenty of chances to go swimming. Below shows a spot we spent several hours at over lunch, with whirlpools, waterfalls and rocky chasms.

Above are some of the characters we met in the village we stayed in. Below, Alice swims in a deep channel. 

Above, Lexi, JP, Pauline and Alice crossing a river. Below, Alice looks out over the valley below.

The pictures above and below show Hyena rock. Below, from left to right, Mandy, Mike, Chris, Douglas, Alice, Alice, Zoe, JP, Lexi, Nathan, Melissa and Jan.

After our week exploring the beautiful Fouta Djalon we had several drive days as we journeyed west towards the border and into Guinea Bissau. This road is being rapidly improved though is still extremely rough in places. Above is a photo of Aminah on a ferry that's soon to be replaced by the bridge being built alongside. 

On the drive we passed through a plain with an extraordinary quantity of termite mounds. None of us could quite work out why they'd all chosen to live in the same place but nonetheless it made for some great photos!

On entering Guinea Bissau our first stop was Saltinho Falls. Here we enjoyed an afternoon washing and cooling off in the water, a most welcome relief after a couple of days on dusty roads. When last here in November the water was a raging torrent and far too high to swim, but now we're at the end of the dry season the flow is much reduced which makes for relaxing bathing, as this photo of Jase in a water channel shows.

Above, Alice, Mike and Zoe cook up a colourful barbecue feast at our campsite by Saltinho Falls.

Guinea Bissau is the world's biggest exporter of cashews and as a result they're the country's most valuable export. We drove past mile after mile of cashew trees as we travelled through the country (as shown in the photo below). As can be seen, the nut is at the bottom of the fruit and this part grows first, but it's not ready to eat until the actual fruit ripens. Once ripened the fruit can be eaten too and the juice squeezed out to be made into a spirit. 

The photos above and below were taken at an unusual sculpture display we passed on our way into the capital. It represents the world, and speaks of the troubles Guinea Bissau has been through over the past few decades.

We're now in Bissau, a very small and friendly capital city, enjoying some time to relax and wander among the fading colonial architecture and the busy fishing port. Next we're looking forward to heading into Senegal's Casamance region for a week, to experience some incredible dancing and culture and to explore the beautiful Atlantic coastline. 

As always, many thanks to passengers Mike, Alice and Lexi for the photos!

Liberia Into Sierra Leone: Beaches, Wildlife, Traditional Villages and Jungle Roads

After several nights of bushcamping in northern Liberia it was time for a little luxury! Libassa eco resort near Monrovia is owned by a French couple who've created a stunning place to relax, catering mainly for the NGO and UN workers in and around Monrovia. They're always very welcoming to the novelty of tourists in Liberia, though we remain the only visitors they've had who choose to camp down by the lagoon! Above is their 'infinity pool' - and the only one in the area as far as we're aware!

Below is the lagoon, a chest-deep area of calm, clear water that's as warm as you'd expect a bath to be!   

Above is the beach by Libassa, a huge expanse of sweeping golden sand with few other people around to share it with. After some time to relax here we headed on to Liberia's capital, Monrovia. 

The Ducor Hotel is perched on a hill overlooking Monrovia, and used to be the definition of luxury, having been visited by various African heads of state such as Sekou Toure, Idi Amin and Houphouet-Boigny. It was closed shortly before Liberia's civil war started, but was unfortunately looted and damaged during the conflict. It remains a fascinating place to visit, and the security guards who keep squatters at bay were only too pleased to show us around the ruins of this once grand establishment. Below is a view from the hotel, down to West Point and the Mesurado river.

From the captial we headed west to Robertsport. This small town is just along the coast and always makes for a great spot to relax for a couple of nights. We camped on the pristine beach, watching the fishing boats come and go and just generally spending the day unwinding and relaxing. In the 1800's Robertsport was host to a colony of freed slaves, and though looted and damaged during the civil war, the town still hosts numerous rather decrepit plantation-style houses, reminiscent of what you will see in the southern states in the USA. 

Once over the border into Sierra Leone we endured a couple of bumpy and dusty days en route to the diamond-trading town of Kenema. We thought we were having a hard time on the bad roads until we came across a convoy of trucks carrying heavy mining machinery, whose drivers were having to dig out many of the big bog holes to give enough clearance to get their machinery through! Fortunately for us the route was dry this time around.

Below is a picture of Aminah about to cross a log bridge as we drove from Kenema to Tiwai Island.

Above are some of the young characters we met en route. Below is a fisherman from Kambama near Tiwai Island.

Tiwai Island is located on the Moa river and is known for its primates. Scientific research on the island started back in the 1970's as the chimpanzees here have been observed using stones as tools to break nuts. Fortunately the primate population on the island has been protected for some time after significant amounts of poaching went on during the civil conflict in the 1990's. We learnt that the monkey population on the mainland is higher than it used to be, as people are now more fearful of eating monkeys following the Ebola outbreak. This has, however, had a negative impact on the cocoa harvest as there are now more monkeys to spoil and eat the crop. 

Tiwai Island is also known for its pygmy hippos. Native to this region, pygmy hippos are particularly difficult to see as they're solitary, nocturnal, small and live in the water. Signs of where they were recently, and will be again at some point in the future, proved to be much easier to find than the actual animals themself! 

Below, Pooley and Spencer enjoying a morning boat trip looking for wildlife around Tiwai.

Below, Jase headed out with a fisherman who cast his nets in the river in the evening before collecting them the following morning. The catch was small but worthwhile as fish provides most of the protein in the diet of the local villagers.

Kambama is the closest village to Tiwai Island, and home to a tremendously welcoming community who were very pleased to see tourism returning after a difficult couple of years. We found their water pump had broken which was forcing them to drink the dirty river water. As they were unable to afford to repair the pump with so little income in the village we made a donation from our trip budget to enable it to be repaired. 

Above and below are students from the village school who came to perform for us. They are practicing for a performance they are putting on in a few weeks time to the surrounding villages.

Moving on from Kambama we spent Friday night in Bo, Sierra Leone's second largest city and well-known for its nightlife. The locals love a party, as we discovered when the tennis courts we were camped on became the dance floor for the evening! 

From Bo we drove west to the Freetown peninsula for a night on Bureh Beach, a magical spot to relax before we finished the trip in Freetown itself. The mountains of the Freetown peninsula come right down to the coast which is almost unknown in the rest of West Africa. Bureh is becoming increasingly famous for its surfing and even has a surf school, though it was very calm when we visited.

From the beach we drove into Freetown for the end of the trip where we sadly said goodbye to Steve, Spencer, Jess, Emilia and Pooley. 

At the same time we said hello to Deborah, 2 Mikes, Melissa, Alice, Chris, Mandy and Steve who joined us for the start of our Freetown to Dakar trip, and who are now travelling with us through Guinea. The beauty of the Fouta Djalon highlands awaits us!

Many thanks to Lexi for many of the photos in this post.