Saturday, 27 April 2013

G Adventures West Africa. Day 20 and 21: Sierra Leone

Freetown's closely-packed waterfront almost topples into the harbour,
well-behaved chimps enjoy amorning snack of mangoes
Day 20 and 21: Sierra Leone

For anyone who's seen the film 'Blood Diamonds' it's hard to imagine
anything beyond the brutal anarchy of Sierra Leone depicted in that film set
during the civil war which finally concluded in 2002. Now, according to
those who know such things, Sierra Leone is one of the safer countries to
visit in West Africa.

Our schedule had been muddled somewhat by a delayed arrival into the
capital, Freetown, due to unfavourable currents and winds off the coast of
Liberia and Ivory Coast. The country's First Lady, Mrs Sia Nyama Koroma, was
there to greet the ship when it eventually tied up mid-afternoon at the
wharf in Freetown. She came aboard to address guests on the issue of her
program to kerb infant and maternal mortality in Sierra Leone. G Adventures,
through their Planeterra Foundation, are backing her initiative and raising
money for 'baby packs' for new mothers. Entertainment from the national
dance troupe followed.

Still wanting to make some use of our abbreviated time, our convoy of
minibuses set out on an evening crawl through the claustrophobic streets to
the national stadium where are a trade fair was in full swing. Arriving well
after dark, a street party more than any commercial event was in full swing.
Beers were flowing, music blaring and locals parading in their festive best
made for surreal scene against a backdrop of businesses touting everything
from traditional medicines, financial services, family planning and plastic
buckets.

One of the overwhelming first impressions of this frenetic port city
perched, ledge-like on the sliver of flat land along the shore of the
natural deep water harbour, is the impossibly narrow streets. This is
especially evident leading away from the port where massive trucks attempt
to haul shipping containers through alley-sized lanes. Needless to say our
transport came to a standstill several times in the crowded thoroughfares in
a fashion that would have close personal protection agents in apoplexy.

The next morning the scene was repeated as we split into two groups, one
staying for a town tour, the other with myself aboard, heading into the
nearby hills to visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary [www.tacugama.com].
After a laborious drive several hundred metres in elevation passing through
distressing examples of clear-felling for urban development, we arrived at
the complex, hidden inside an increasingly isolated pocket of forest.

Described euphemistically by our naturalist Steve Boyes as a 'chimp refugee
camp', over 100 animals are housed mainly in open range compounds with
others in temporary quarantine. While the goal is to release these animals
back to the wild, the issue of how they got there in the first place
remains. Most are confiscated as illegal pets or from wildlife smugglers,
while others are orphaned by bush meat hunters and loggers. Sending
rehabilitated animals back to this perilous environment seems ridiculous and
it is clear some of the more adversely effected apes will live out their
days at Tacugama. While no contact with the apes was permitted, we could see
them being fed such food as mangoes by keepers who would drop the fruit into
the outstretched, imploring hands of the group. One troupe seemed
particularly mischievous, chasing each other around, wrestling and throwing
pebbles at us, an action that had our guide urging us behind a protective
net. The other, being fed the mangoes, sat in an orderly ensemble leaving
their colleagues to enjoy their fruit in peace. Perhaps the presence of two
nursing mothers added a degree of tranquility and discipline clearly missing
from the neighbouring pack of rock tossing hooligans.

Predictably, our return journey elbowed and squeezed through the same
streets to the port, all the while we were able to exchange curious, arms'
length gazes with locals who mixed with the trestle table hawkers lining the
labyrinthine maze of Freetown's streets.

++ more images at www.flickr.com/photos/rodeime ++



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