Monday, August 22, 2011

Heading to Bintumani

Above: bridge crossing and repair on the Kabala-Kurobonla Road. Many a bridge on this road was in a similar state of disrepair. The procedure used was (thankfully) to stop before the bridge, lorry boys then going into the brush to cut down small tree trunks to then lay in the open areas on the bridge. Skip and I chose to walk across these bridges. Our lorry had no other choice but to drive across these flimsy structures when the limbs had been placed.

Above: on the trail through the high grass above Kurobonla - March 1969. You had to be very careful with this high grass. It was razer-sharp and could slash you to shreds. These cuts would then get infected leaving you with (needless to say) a difficult situation.

Above: on the Makeni-Kabala Road March 1969. That is fellow hiker, Skip Smith with the hat in the center of the picture. Our transport to the right.For some reason a soldier stopped us here - it was never clear to us as to why. By this time the day was fading and yet we had a long way to go to our destination (that day) of Kabala in the far north.

Early in our time in Sierra Leone other volunteers from earlier programs talked about the great mountains in the north of Sierra Leone - the Loma Mountains. They talked about the beauty of the area, its remoteness, and the friendliness of the people who lived there. And they talked of hiking in the area and climbing the highest peak - Bintimani. I think it was during our training that fellow volunteer, Skip Smith and I made plans to contact each other and give the mountain range a try during the March school break. Skip was a primary school teacher in the North (he taught in Matotaka). Somehow, despite difficulties with communication (we were easily a half day away by land transport), we were able to finalize hiking plans and in March 1969 I headed to Skip's - his house being on the road to the mountains. Skip's village of Matotaka was small and friendly. Skip had to some degree mastered Temne in addition to Krio and seemed to have lots of friends. Skip and I headed north through Makeni, and then on the Makeni-Kabala Road to Kabala. In Kabala, we stayed with some volunteers over night before heading on to the base of the Loma Mountains and the village of Kurobonla in Kuranko country. This 75 mile portion of the trip was the most difficult for a variety of reasons. First off the road was rutted, dusty, and tortuous. Our transport was a large lorry - more likened to a cattle truck than a vehicle for the transport of people. Large and with heavy truck suspension, when riding in it you felt every nuance in the road and were bounced around over and over again. The other hazard was the heat. We left Kabala at dawn - and it was cool. However by mid-morning the dry season heat was upon us. The Kabala-Kurobonla Road skirted the northern tier of Sierra Leone along the Guinea border in many places and not that far from the southern edge of the Sahara. This was Savannah country with high grasslands in places. But the heat was impressive. Here we all were - perhaps twenty or so other folks packed into the railed back of this lorry, heading east out of Kabala, and with temperatures hovering nearly 100ºF. The ruts were amazing, and the truck suspension accentuated every one. Many times, in order to keep myself from being bounced off the hard bench I had to stand up and hold onto the rails - and this resulted in my getting bounced about anyway, frequently banging against the rails as we traveled. And then there was the road dust. As noted, it was the dry season and the roads were dusty and the dust was latterite red. It got "sucked" into the back as we went on, and our faces, and clothes, lungs, and our bodies got caked with it. Travel was very slow and in places the lorry slowed to 5 or 10 mph while the driver negotiated the road hazards. When we came to marginal bridges - he would come to a halt and he and his lorry boys would get out, machetes in hand, and head off to cut poles down to use as planks for the bridge. We would carefully walk across the bridges rather than sit in the lorry and risk ending up at the bottom of some ravine. Travel was so slow that by mid-afternoon we had only gone less than thirty miles. We passed through remote frontier villages in Yalunka and Kuranko country. Periodic stops allowed us to get out and walk about a bit. I was amused to see many posters of Mao Tse Tung on the walls of verandas, but this reinforced how close were were to Guinea where, in those days, Sekou Tourey was the socialist leader and where the Communist Chinese had a powerful influence. The posters were not political - the people just loved his looks, and decorated their verandas with the free distribution of his image. And we headed on - the day getting hotter. At about 6 pm we still had some thirty miles to go. At this time and in the middle of nowhere the driver stopped and surprisingly came back to talk to Skip and me. Puzzled, we listened as he suggested we get off and "wait for him." Here we were, in the most remote section of the trip. It was getting dark, and our driver was asking us to get out of the lorry and wait by the road for him. At that time we had no idea why. Skip and I decided that getting out and waiting was not going to be in our best interest and despite the driver's insistence we refused. There was more discussion followed by the driver's return to the cab and starting the engine again. This was followed by a worrisome turn of the lorry from the "main" road to a smaller and even more obscure road heading north. This was troublesome (at least for us). North meant Guinea, and Americans were not allowed in Guinea. Additionally we didn't have passports which however reassuring would have been no use in Guinea anyway. Skip and I looked at each other, smiled at our plight, and wondered what the heck we were doing heading north. At about 7:30 PM we uneventfully crossed the frontier border into Guinea. There was no official crossing point here - there were thankfully no border guards - and we headed on north, out of Sierra Leone. We realized that in Guinea we might be arrested at anytime. On we went for a while before it began to storm. Although this was the end of the dry season - rain came in torrents and the thunder and lightening was overhead, the clay-like latterite road (more like a trail then a road) became an impassable quagmire. Finally, as the driver tried and failed to negotiate a final steep hill and the lorry headed sideways and tires could get no further traction - we stopped. Here we were, two Peace Corps Volunteers, illegally in an unfriendly country, and now stuck miles from where we were headed. And then we realized what this northern turn was all about. The rain ceased, we all got out of the lorry, and as we stood by, all of a sudden our fellow passengers began taking the floor boards out from where we had been riding to reveal unloading of textiles - clothing - and goods. Here we were, illegally in Guinea, and now indirectly part of a smuggling ring. It seems that Guineans could only get Eastern European designed clothing and materials legally in those days. This black market tour that we had hooked up with was bringing the more stylish goods from France (and perhaps other places). In the dark of night a surprisingly large amount of goods was unloaded (we had been sitting over this stuff for most of the day) and packed into a nearby village house. Then our driver found us - smiled at what he was doing and what we had seen - and concerned for our safety directed us to a nearby house for sleep. In a dusty mud house we all slept the night in hard native beds. The floor was dirt, the roof was thatch. Somehow the driver had kept his word to get us to Kurobonla - we realized that he hadn't said when. Here we were, Skip and I, the driver, and two or three lorry boys, all in one room and waiting for the morning - I slept poorly. Morning was cool and somewhat foggy. As I waited for our driver to get going I walked about this Guinean Yalunka village. People seemed to stare at us and wonder what the heck we were doing here - and of course we ironically wondered the same. By 7 am we were back in the lorry - this time there were no other passengers - and we headed south back to Sierra Leone. By mid-morning we crossed back into Sierra Leone and soon turned east (left) again heading the additional thirty miles to Kurobonla, the last village on the road. By mid-afternoon the driver let us off there, we paid our transport fee, joked with him about our long and arduous journey and went to find a place to stay for the night. We had arrived at Kurobonla more than 24 hrs after leaving Kabala (75 miles) and with a memorable adventure to boot. However, I was not in good shape. Skip had weathered all the excitement better than I had. My back was bruised by the constant banging around in the vehicle. I was exhausted and needed a break before heading out on the additional thirty mile hike into Bintumani. We had time restraints and after discussion Skip elected to head on up the mountain. I stayed in a "hostel." This place was actually a remote, outlying government health clinic but since there was no one to run the clinic it had become a place to stay. I remember vagaries of that evening spent there. After I ate, and went out to view the far off mountain, the one vivid memory I have is a family coming out of the high grass carrying a frighteningly thin daughter on a stretcher who was clearly having serious breathing issues. She was emaciated, and as they carried her into the "clinic"she stopped breathing and died. It turns out that the mom and dad had been on bush trails for several days trying to get her help. I never knew what she had for sure (I presumed that she had tuberculosis). I just remember her face as she hung over the edge of the native stretcher. How ill she was. And how distraught her parents were. That sad image has stuck with me these many years.
That evening I met three Brits who were heading up the mountain the next day. They agreed to my hiking with them, and the next morning, after negotiating with the Paramount Chief Kewulé Marrah for a guide we headed into the very hot area grasslands and up into the mountain.

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