Monday, 7 January 2013

The Unforgettable Mighty Moa River Trip.

Here goes an attempt to somehow distinguish between all of the wonderfully unique experiences that made up an amazing 10-day trip through remotest Sierra Leone and give a glimpse of the highlights and lowlights we encountered along the way. The Moa river expedition recce ended just over two weeks ago and almost instantaneously the trip in my mind has moulded into one exotic, dreamlike adventure of hiking and canoeing from one welcoming rural Mende community to the next.

The dream team consisted of Kenneth aka Urban Gorilla and Alusine aka African Ox our ├╝ber-knowledgeable local guides who shared such an infectious love for their country and the wildlife that we all became amateur birdwatchers by the end of the trip. Tom, a passionate ‘West African Responsible Tourism’ developer from London with a penchant for all things pirates, was the reason we were all there as he headed the reclamation for the Secret Compass expedition to come. Kieran an anthropological documentary maker, with Shooting Freetown already under his belt, was there to film his next documentary; Beyond Freetown. KP a Sierra Leonean filmmaker, featured in Shooting Freetown, was also there to make his own documentary about the adventure. Kat aka the pied piper, an enthusiastic Australian Dietician with the power to hypnotize any group of children she encountered. Mark an avid permaculturist and treehugger from South Africa and myself, a passionately curious, adventure loving, Salone fan from Ireland made up the team. 

Our trip began with an overnight stay in Kenema where we had the chance to start to get to know each other, stock up on supplies and build up our own excited anticipations of the adventure to come. After a good night of sleep we set off early to our first destination where we abandoned our comfortable 4x4 and the real fun started. We followed pretty much the same routine of tasks in every community we entered; first step was to locate and greet the headman and explain our mission to the chief and crowds of curious onlookers. Our mission being responsible tourism was often a bit too abstract for comprehension in communities who have only ever had interactions with missionaries, prospectors or development organizations. The idea that we would want to come and enjoy the beauty and culture of their remote area was a surprise to many and a cause for celebration in most.
After observing the ritual gratuity giving to the headman we would seek out staples such as access to drinking water, potential porters to help with our supplies, boat men to share with us their knowledge of the region and navigate the rapids and finally camping grounds.

Our first stop was Senabu a somewhat remote village touching the Moa River at the Guinea – Sierra Leone border. Our welcome was warm and our mission was met with a certain degree of understanding, compared to latter, more remote communities. The realities of what we were doing and the responsibility we held quickly became apparent as I realized what a pioneering force we would be as the first tourists to navigate the entirety of the Moa and encounter and interact with local communities along the way.

After setting up camp on the banks of the mighty Moa the boys went for a swim with an audience of about 40  that had gathered earlier that day to observe our every move while Kat and I hung back trying to decide where to bathe as it did not seem appropriate ladies, to strip down into bikinis and join the boys. There was no bathing that first night… Bright and early the next day after a breakfast of fried fish and chillies we set off on our first canoe ride to Mende-Booima where a long day of hiking ensued. At points the hot sun was beating down upon us as we meandered through the dense jungle with our backpacks – the hard work was exhilarating, the banter was mightly and the changing vegitation meant that we passed through sheltered plantations providing shade and delicious fruit to sustain us on our trek.  

Just before nightfall, exhausted, hungry and 5miles of forest from our target destination we decided to change the plan and stay at the next village we met. And what a wonderful village, Botoma, the welcome we received was immense as we were told that we were the first foreign visitors in over 25 years. The village quickly began to buzz with excitement and the imam shared with us the reason – a local woman had recently dreamt that foreign people would visit and this would bring great fortune to the community in the future, a prophecy… As we set up camp in the centre of the town, the villagers prepared water for us to wash ourselves and the headman assured that no harm would come of us as long as we stayed. I noticed some local boys carrying a television and dvd player through the town, they had borrowed this from the neighbouring village some 5 miles away to set up a cinema to watch some local movies that night. I happened to have a copy of Secret Desire – KP’s most well-known movie, which we presented to the village as a gift. This small gesture was greatly appreciated by the headman and as word spread men, women and children began to emerge from their homes, wiping sleep from their eyes, to join the rest of the village to honour the gift and watch the movie. 

The most magical wake up call started with the traditional Muslim call to prayer followed by drumming and chanting as the Christians competed for worshippers. Speechless we rose from our tents to watch the sun rise over the hills and warm ourselves at the fire with a warm cup of coffee – unforgettable!

The days that followed were equally as magical with amazing displays of hospitality, generosity and insights into the undiluted culture of the local people we encountered. Other highlights included gliding along the glasslike surface of the Moa lost in thoughts with nothing but the tribal humming of the boatmen to be heard. Cooling off in the Moa after a long hike in the mid-day sun, a brief, slightly illegal trip across the river to Guinea, trying local delacicies including cane rat and bitter tomato suace, moonlit bathing in bamboo enclosures, and dancing round a camp fire with women to the beating of their drums, watching the crowds around the campfires enthralled as KP launched into vivid storytelling mode again and again....

Some of the more challanging moments include zipping along almost non-existant dirt tracks on the back motorbikes at an unknown speed with a cloud of red dust obstructing the view. Needless to say there may be some okada riders out there with bruised ribs from my intermitent squeezing during moments of terrified horror as I envisioned a painful end to my own life. One particulary bad ride where we veered off the narrow path into the grass and my feet met with a fallen tree and instantly opened  didn't do much to put my mind at ease on future rides. Thankfully this was the only accident we encountered and apart from some blisters from hiking our first aid kits returned untouched.

Other challanges we faced included the negotiations with local boatmen who didn't always understand that quoting a fair price could cement a relationship with the potential for future work in tourism. Although by the end of the trip our negotiation skills had improved immensly along with other important skills including speed tent set-up/take down and basic Mende to name but a few.

What a thrilling adventure far from the well-beaten path, it has left its mark on me in more ways than just the scars on my toes. I see Sierra Leone through different eyes and feel a deeper understanding for the culture here and will surely never be able to go on one of those regular tourist trails again… AND there is still a documentary to look forward to, which will certainly paint another picture from the perspective of a local Mende film maker and an insightful anthropological film maker  - Beyond Freetown: The Moa River Journey

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