A Journey into the unknown.
Sierra Leone was not somewhere I thought I would end up this year. So when the opportunity arose it was a complete surprise and an exciting prospect that I could not turn down! Having never been to the continent of Africa and never been to a Jungle, I found myself in a position that I had not been in before with a group of people I had never met in my life.
After 16hrs of travelling on and off, from Southampton to the Hotel in Freetown I was exhausted! Not to mention the cold I had! Eyes and nose streaming I wasn't in the best of states and I remember telling my wife that I would probably be in a better state when I got back then when I left! Although she didn't believe me.
Paul and Dave were our expedition leaders. We met Paul at Freetown International Airport where he chaperoned us through the chaos and onto the boat across to Freetown, where we met Dave at the Hotel. The rest of the team, (Chris, Rik and Alex) found each other at the Airport in France. We had an evening meal, introduced ourselves and spoke about what we wanted from the Expedition. Common goals were to experience the culture, have a adventure and be out of our comfort zones. I could tell very early on that we had a great team! Very like minded people but from very different backgrounds, which was awesome.
One of the first things Paul said on our first night in the jungle was “Don’t try and fight against the jungle because you wont win. Learn to work with it”. That was when we were clearing a space to put our hammocks up. George who is a Cpl in the Sierra Leone Army was building a fire and the continuous Crack of thunder and flashes of lighting had everyone making sure that everything was water tight throughout the night. It did rain that night and it rained properly.. none of the drizzle they call rain in the UK. Only Chris got wet that night.
Day one on the river and before setting off we had some vital safety training and we didn't depart until around 10:45am. As we went down the swelled river, then 1km into over 100km that we would be doing, I snapped my paddle in half. and almost flipped my boat over! I couldn't believe it and I don’t think anyone else could either as they are pretty sturdy things. Luckily we had back ups! We made good progress that day with 25km covered. We also learnt a lot about the river and our boats and gelled as a team. We also learnt that George couldn't swim! We passed under the first of two bridge on this expedition and set up camp on the outskirts of Daru. That evening after we had established camp, we wandered into Daru to experience how the locals lived. We sourced some beer, sat back and relaxed watching a different life pass in front of our eyes. I also had the pleasure of experiencing what a toilet is there! That night we had the amusement of listening to what must of been some really bad piano lessons that fizzled out during the night as well as the call to prayer very early in the morning!
Day 2 on the river and it got interesting and exciting very quickly! We experienced the WAVE TRAIN. A small stretch of fast flowing river with great waves to navigate. Everyone came out apart from George! He must of held on for his life! Definitely one of the many highlights of the trip. 22km covered that day.
Day 3 on the river with 29km covered with Rocky channels and small rapids, lots of route finding and slow progress through tough areas of river. We wanted to reach Bo-Kenema bridge but we were 5km short. We camped on a island and it was dark before we had established camp. We made a substantial fire and had food with the backdrop of continuous flashes of lighting seconds apart! Minutes after we got into our hammocks the heavens opened!! It was incredible, mother nature at its finest.
Day 4 on the river with a quick start we left the island and were confronted with rapids from the get go. A quick 5km due to the rains speeding the water flow of water down the river we reached Bo-Kenema Bridge and dropped off rubbish and relished food with thanks to Martin one of our drivers. Today was a long day but a good day with another 19km covered. In total 24km. That evening I came across a very poisonous snake that we had to kill.
Day 5 on the river, 19km covered today with help from the fast flowing river, making very good progress. The best day so far on the river, passing through epic rapids as well as going off track through small winding channels of river through the dense jungle; Ducking under beaches and avoiding rocks. After a intense day we made it to the Island of Tiwai, a nature reserve.
It is awe inspiring how the people of Sierra Leone over come every obstacle thrown at them - Civil War, Mud slides, Ebola, malaria to name a few. But they show a great deal of resilience and kindness. Kids out playing until dusk and locals helping us navigate the river and cooking for us. I experienced a massive culture shock that I can liken to the one I experienced in Afghanistan. How people live very differently to us but seem happier although life is harder.
There were many challenges I faced during the week. Adapting to my surroundings, the jungle, humidity and the river, almost came as second nature and by the end of the week I felt efficient in the pack raft, being able to read the river. Establishing a place to sleep and eat got a bit quicker every day. With my injuries, my left arm was the trouble maker causing pain but this subsided slowly in the evening with some help from pain killers. When you are ploughing through white water rapids in the remote wilderness with the adrenaline coursing though your veins, it was very easy to forget the pain and power on until hitting a steady slow flowing part of the river and thinking, “Why the hell does my arm feel like its been hit with a sledge hammer?”
What I got from this incredible expedition was a absolute sense of adventure; A refreshment of the mind, where I didn't feel the need to reach for my phone or constantly think about work. I had so much more energy mind and body and every day was a new and exciting challenge.
The last day in Sierra leone was at a place called Tokeh Beach Resort. It was a very nice way for the team to unwind and ease back into the modern world. It had wifi, beds and food that didn't come from a bag whilst being next to a picturesque sandy beach. We all of course had some alcohol and reflected on how successful the expedition had been.
keep your feet planted on the ground and reach for the stars.
I would highly recommend this expedition to anyone who wants to challenge themselves and lives for adventure! It is a eye opener and very rewarding.