First Descent of the Moa River (almost…)

Canoeing the MoaSierra Leone |

At the Sierra Leone border I am offered the opportunity to meet with someone who could sell me diamonds.    Later, fresh coconuts are for sale on the roadside.      The next day, I am approached by a small boy who offers me a baby crocodile for sale.     What more could a girl want in a country – diamonds, coconuts and baby crocs?

I am in Sierra Leone to join a group attempting to be the first people to descend the Moa River from the Guinea border to the coast by foot and indigenous canoe – a trip of about 150 km that we are estimating will take us 10 days. We start in the far east of the country, passing through the stronghold of the rebels during the civil war (which ended 10 years ago) and into diamond territory.   Very few white people venture here and certainly not for tourism – a fact that quickly becomes evident.

At every stop, we are completely surrounded by intensely staring villagers.  Some of the children are scared of us and do not ask for their photo to be taken or know what to do when we do take it (usually the kids crowd quickly around to look at themselves on the screen).   It is simply unfathomable that we should be doing this journey purely for pleasure and the villagers consistently ask us for our purpose – surely we must be prospecting or researching.   In one village we ask for direction and the chief points us to a path saying “Your brother took this road – he came in 1992”.

We even cause a stir with the officials.   In our first village, we are enthusiastically welcomed by the Village Chief and villagers.   However, a few hours later a much more somber Section Chief arrives.   It appears the Paramount Chief was not advised of our arrival and is displeased.   Much discussion ensues – discussion in Africa usually escalates quite quickly into raised voices and emphatic gestures (and stays like this for quite a while) only to suddenly deflate into genial conversation.   This was no exception.  The process is repeated the next morning when a Guinean immigration official appears – he considers our riverside campsite to be part of a sensitive border area.  Again much discussion ensues until, quite suddenly, we are the best of friends.

With all this, we are unconditionally welcomed by all villages with everyone rushing to bring us seats, fruit and help us set up camp.   I dance with the children and sometimes we teach them to clap.  T. – our resident bard – plays the ukelele and sings to them and they laugh in glee.   I am propositioned by a chief but it is unclear if it is for marriage or a night only and I politely decline.  Another chief is concerned that the cutlass (machete) we carry (to hack through the jungle) is there  because we think we need protection in the villages and assures us of his friendship. I doubt many in the west would be so welcoming to a group of strangely dressed, bedraggled strangers who turn up unexpectedly and ask to stay in their backyard!

And bedraggled we are.   The jungle likes to have its way with you and we are soon filthy – from trudging through mud or dust in the humid heat, from torso high river crossings, from sitting on the bottom of wet canoes or resting on the ground while we negotiate for more canoes or stop to eat.  Blisters from our boots bother us.     Our legs become covered in bites and we work hard to stop them getting infected. We sleep in individual hammocks with built in mosquito nets and quickly learn that intense slapping and bumping from a hammock in the middle of the night means that person got up to pee and now, quite literally, has ants in their pants.

But despite all this, we are charmed (well – at least I am) by the beautiful river, by the adventure of what we are doing, by our local guide and cook, Abu and Zainab (who surely had no idea what they were getting into yet looked after all of us so well), by the tasty cuisine, by the interactions in the villages and by the newfound knowledge we are assimilating.

We become experts on the relative merits and demerits of various types of local dugout canoes.   In case you are ever in need of such knowledge, look for a canoe dug from one huge piece of wood with high sides.  It will be significantly more stable and require far less bailing than those using multiple pieces of wood (we also become experts at bailing techniques and how to best stuff palm leaves, feet and socks into holes to reduce the water entering the boat).    A quote from Abu, our local guide, best summed up our canoe experiences “This boat is not new”.

It took us a little longer to learn our lesson for judging the skill of the boatmen paddling the canoes.   Having become accustomed to a raggedy bunch from whichever village we have just left, imagine our surprise when one group of boatmen showed up with lifejackets and a whistle system.    Impressed with their professionalism, we relaxed into a serene journey downriver congratulating ourselves on our luck.

Serene, that is, until the leading canoe (which just happened to be the one I was in with my companion Harry and our stove and pots and pans), decided to enter a whitewater rapid and promptly capsized.  Emerging from under water I found myself holding the canoe, the pots and pans, Harry’s boots and my waterbottle.   Harry indicated he had my waterproof camera bag and told me to swim for shore.   It was only then that I realized that I was in the grips of the current and couldn’t swim out of it.   The last thing I heard before being swept downstream was Harry yelling “feet first”.

I soon realized I needed to dump everything I was holding onto in order to avoid being dragged under too regularly.   I also lamented our decision to put our lifejackets on our packs to help them float in case of capsize (until now we had walked around any rapids so it was very safe as long as you could swim).    Slowly but surely, my shoes came off, my hat disappeared and I fought desperately to regain any sense of control and stay upright with feet first and take deep breaths as I was going under.   The rapids were not big (Class 1?) and those we had seen before were no longer than about 100m so I felt I would soon be at the end.  Well – when it finally spat me out, I had traveled about 600m but was lucky to emerge with only a few bruises and cuts to show for myself.

In fact I would still support our lifejacket decision and my greatest concern was having to tell Harry and our cook Zainab that I had lost their boots and stove/cooking pots.    Incredibly, both my shoes and my water bottle were later found floating on the river in three separate places.   The boatman recovered the canoe but the rest was gone forever.   Luckily, the women in the villages lent us cooking supplies and Harry replaced his boots by literally offering to buy the shoes off the feet of his motorbike taxi driver as he headed for a town to find replacements the next day!

It was hard to dwell for long on an incident in which nobody was hurt when we were traveling through an area ravaged by civil war only a few years earlier. There is little visible evidence left of the atrocities and rampage that occurred (although there are many amputees in Sierra Leone – courtesy of the rebel soldiers) and, although we tried, it was impossible to comprehend the horrors and devastation wrought by the war and what these friendly villagers (and Abu and Zainab) had lived through.  Paul, our leader and ex British military, had spent two years living in Sierra Leone helping train the reunited army after the war and he noticed many positive changes for the better in infrastructure and safety in the last five years.  A casual comment from him in one of the regional towns.  “Seems strange to be able to walk around here without my AK47 and pistol”.

Unfortunately Paul had contracted malaria during his time here with the military and, also unfortunately, his malaria decided to recur during one of the remote stretches of our trip.   With our leader suddenly very ill, our adventure trip became an all too real enactment of a corporate team building event.   Can he walk, should we split the group up, should we go back or forward, does he need to get to hospital, which hospital, does anybody know how to insert the IV drip if necessary, who is doing shifts to monitor him during the night????

Fortunately, despite a nightmare 3 mile walk (shuffle) to the next village, emergency procedures established prior to the trip and a general level-headedness among the group led to a successful evacuation of Paul (accompanied by another trip member) to hospital in Freetown and I’m pleased to report he is completely recovered.    As for the rest of us, slow going for the last couple of days plus the loss of a day in evacuation meant we were falling behind schedule and emotionally and physically exhausted.  The difficult decision was made to take motorized transport to the lovely Tiwai Island (home of monkeys and chimps and pygmy hippos and with facilities such as running water and mattresses) and regroup.

Group consultation saw us deciding to push on for the last three days to the coast, but some infected legs and a very nasty looking back rash make us reconsider and we ultimately decided that some R&R on the beach was a much more sensible and healthy decision.    Four days of relative luxury in beach tents at the welcoming Tribewanted (and the return of Paul) had us all happy campers again, disappointed not to have achieved our goal, but glad to be healthy or recovering.

And it was hard to feel sorry for ourselves with stunning beaches (best in West Africa), great food and lots of beer, cider and palm wine!  A big thanks to my favorite tour company, Secret Compass (check their website for incredible adventures), Tom Arnitt (aka Captian Jack) for on the ground logistics and cultural attaché duties, and to Paul and all my team-mates (Maarten, Pat, Jim, T., Harry) for contributing to a great trip.

I’m very sad to report my time in West Africa is coming to an end.   It’s surreal to think I’ll be skiing in Europe in less than a week.  But looking forward to seeing friends and hitting the slopes .…

More from there…

– Nikki

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