Around Freetown islands beckon: Bunce (infamous as a centre for the slave trade) Tasso (birds and beaches) and the Banana Islands (named for shape not vegetation). There are also some incredible silvery beaches.
Bunce Island is a short boat crossing from Lunghi, near the airport where I've stayed over night after crossing the border from Guinea. The island was the centre of the slave trade in this part of West Africa. The old slave quarters here are in ruins and currently being restored, there are piles of stones and men up ladders. But the male and female living halls, the separation chamber and the door of no return are all clearly discernible. It’s hard to know what to say in these places except to reflect yet again on man’s inhumanity to man.
There are gravestones too. The only legible epitaphs belong to Danish sea captains who specialised in slave cargo. Alfred Dory is lauded as an upright and honourable man beloved of his companions. ‘Fuck Alfred Dory', an American has written in the visitors’ book.
It’s incredibly humid and my clothes are uncomfortably sticky. I’m glad to take to the sea again.
Next stop, Tasso Island, where there’s a pretty golden beach and a small resort run by an English guy. Peter is currently hosting a conference on the conservation of migratory birds. Nine of the participants are sharing a dormitory. Others have pitched tents. They must be keen.
The boat takes an hour and a half to bob across to Freetown. The port area is a pall of smoke overhanging a sea of chimneys. The traffic into the centre of the city is nose-to-tail with a melee of calling street vendors winding their way through the gaps.
In Sierra Leone, as one might expect from the name, the mountains run into the sea. Freetown is a multitude of slopes and the roads surrounding it mini dippers. The place names are nearly all British - though guides Alfred and Alusine are surprised when I explain this - the story of Waterloo, in particular, is a revelation.
We stop at the ethnography museum - every African capital has one of these filled with wood carvings and masks. There’s an entertaining tour given by a cheery soul who ends up by singing the national anthem. Finally, the Freetown Big Market which is mainly souvenirs and jewellery stalls manned by some lethargic vendors who moan about the heat and humidity. It makes me feel better if the locals are complaining -I don’t feel such a wimp.
It’s a slow journey. Like many of the West African capitals, Freetown is built on a peninsula and my hotel is at the far end, so we have to negotiate the narrow traffic filled centre of town again. I’m having to translate all the directions for driver Maladho, who is protesting in French that it’s mad to go through town, as there is another better route. Guide Alfred insists that this is the faster route at this time of day. I have to translate all this too. The arrangements are certainly mad. I’ve finally gathered the courage to ban Bob Marley on the sound system. So, we’re back to techno. And the rear-view mirror has just dropped off. It seems to have been secured with araldite. Maladho is a tad concerned. It’s definitely illegal to drive without one of those.
The Banana Islands are so named because as a group they form the shape of a banana. It’s not because they grow bananas there. Apparently, they’ve tried, but not very successfully.
All is well. The mirror’s been glued back on. And Idris Elba has just checked into town, to be made a citizen of the country. Or it was, but the crossing to the main island, Dublin, is choppy. Alfred doesn’t swim and isn’t very happy. He shuts his eyes. It’s another resort visit with more small beautiful sandy bays. There are tempting batik covered double bed size loungers, but I’m not allowed to indulge until I’ve done a village tour and inspected the cannons and fortress. These were put in place by the Portuguese in this instance, trying to evade the abolition of slavery laws, until the British finally evicted them. There’s a very pretty view of more small and frilly islets, fishing boats in the foreground.
Papaya salad, shrimps and sweet potato chips on the menu. It’s a shame to leave. Alfred must think so too. He’s asleep in a hammock.
The whole coast between the Banana Islands and Freetown is a string of gorgeous stretches of silvery sand. We stop at Number 2 River Beach, which is an amazing turquoise inlet with silvery sand banks and a beach bar. There are ample sunbeds, the sea is soothingly warm and there’s gentle surf. I divide my time between the water and the sunbed, Maladho and Alusine wave-dive, giggling hysterically and Alfred snoozes sedately under the canopy of the bar. It’s a peaceful couple of hours, until the bartenders turn up the volume of the music and start to gear up for sunset revels.
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