Last we talked, my travelling spirit was kind of down. Which is not too surprisingly as travellers aren't supposed to sit still for too long. Struggling on a mountainside interestingly reinvigorated my joy of being on the road.
For the past three days I have constantly been either well moisturised or soaked to the bone. Someone did mention that climbing the Loma Mountains in the rainy season would be mad. Nobody told them that madness is a batch a wear with stubborn pride.
Non-conflict diamonds, Freetown
At 1,945 metres, the highest peak between Morocco and Cameroon isn’t that frightening on paper. It is, however, well off the beaten path. A day on public transportation took me from Freetown, on the coast, to Koidu, in the highlands. This is where Sierra Leone’s conflict diamonds used to come from during the civil war in the 90’s. Think Leonardo DiCaprio and the movie ‘Blood Diamonds’ and you'll get the picture. Today the town is defined by a more legal diamond trade, but it's a fairly gloomy place and unless I want to try my luck with the expensive stones, which I don’t, there’s nothing here to stick around for. Koidu is also were the line of potholes, which some maps show as a paved road, ends. And so does public transportation.
The "major road"
From here it’s necessary to a charter motorbike to get any further. The scenery is pretty and hilly jungle, interrupted only by small villages of mud brick houses. But it isn’t pretty enough to take my mind off the ride. This road – a yellow “major road” on Google Maps (ha!) – is a hilly gravel road, turned mudslide by the rains. That is, the parts road that haven’t been washed completely away by rivers and streams.
Note: This ride is also where I get soaked the first time. I stay continuously wet, throughout this story, until I explicitly state otherwise.
Leaving the “major road” after five hours of driving my driver continues on a jungle track for another hour until we reach the village of Sangbania. I ask for the village chief. This is a necessary visit if a want to pass through the village and, more importantly, sleep here. As tradition prescribes, I hand over a small bag of Kola nuts. This illustrates my request for hospitality. The chief is, surprisingly, pretty normal looking. Old, with a small grey goatee, and dressed in a grey rope; he doesn’t stand out from the other old men in the village. He demands 100,000 Leones (about 15 US$). Not in English, but in a local languish I can’t recognise. The villages school teacher translates.
It’s a little steep for me. The motorbike driver has already ripped me off. I lie and tell them that I’m a student. Wearing a t-shirt from my old university, I show them the ‘university’ text. The teacher lights up; two of his sons are currently attending university in Freetown. With his help the price is cut in half. This donation to the village buys me dinner, a spot next to the teacher in his bed, and a porter, who will carry my backpack to the next village 6 km further into the jungle. From here I can start my attempt at the mountain’s summit. Obviously, I tip both the teacher and the porter LE25,000 each as they would otherwise see little of the money I handed to the chief.
Putting on wet socks, shoes and pants after a night in damp sheets aren’t fun, but the clouds hang low as we walk out of Sangbania just before dawn, so I’m quickly wet enough to not care anymore. The hilly 6 km is taken in a fast pace, but still takes 90 minutes to complete. Up a mudslide, down a mudslide, through a small river (no bridges – goes without saying). My porter is carrying my 10 kg backpack. I’m carrying nothing. He is wearing old slippers and I’m wearing hiking shoes. I can barely keep up.
Arriving in the final village, which name a can’t remember, I’m again taken before the local chief. More nuts are handed over. Le60,000 for the village, Le70,000 to the guide that will lead me to the mountain’s top. It seems like a steel and I don’t negotiate.
Keeping up with my guide
These are poor villages, and I’ve brought ten cups of rice (rice is measured in cups, not kilos down here) with me to be self-reliant. While the village is happy to cook the rice for me, the Chairman of Youth, Mouhamad, lets me get an hour’s rest in his house. Mouhamad is a war veteran from the civil war. Back then he had three months of English training – mainly to understand the instructions from the British Special Forces training him and his platoon. That’s enough to make him this village’s English teacher.
My attempt at the top starts at 11 in the morning. It’s raining again. The chief told me that anyone who can make it to Camp One can make it to the top. Good news, I guess. Not for long. The first two hours is killing me. Most of it is on a 45 degree hillside through jungle and rainforest, and I’m beginning to understand why some people think this is difficult in the rainy season. I’m slipping on about every tenth step.
Clouds on the mountain
Finally, we reach Camp One, which is nothing but a small fire place under the cover of two trees. I’ve fallen down twice. Repeating this morning, my guide who is carrying all my shit plus our food, is ascending the mountain like he was running the Freetown Marathon. I’m struggling just to keep him in sight.
It is 90 minutes between Camp One and Two. The going is easier. Still up, but not as steep. The sun, to my surprise, is shining. This doesn’t really matter, because we’re now walking in metre-tall grasses. And the grass is still very wet. There isn’t really any path either, so we’re just kind of pushing our way through it. This makes it impossible to see where I’m putting my feet and as a result we’re actually covering less ground that we were going uphill. Oh, and a fall down twice. Again. Taking what is, essentially, a shower rolling around in the wet grass. Usman, my guide and porter, walks along as if he was strolling through a well kept park.
The Loma's highest peak
As we reach Camp Two, we get a short peak at the peak before it gets covered in clouds again. We leave my backpack and the food at the camp and after an hour’s rest we attempt the ascent. Usman insists that he brings both (!) of his machetes with him to the summit. I never dared to ask why. We get yet another quick shower as we move out. The power of nature is taunting us.
The last bit is almost vertical climbing and for the first time I doubt the rationale behind climbing the mountain in the rain. If I slip, it’s pretty far down... but no matter, we’re too close now.
View from the top
They say, that the greater the struggle, the greater the reward. As a miracle, the sky clears as we reach the top, adding a gorgeous rainbow to the scenery below. Standing in the sun on the highest point anywhere between Morocco and Cameroon with West Africa’s greenery stretching out before us, the reward surely is great.
The clouds gather around the mountain’s top once more, and I add stone on the pile that symbolises the number of people who have made it up here before starting the descent back to Camp Two.
The symbolic stones
The heavy showers return as we near Camp Two. It is almost six o’clock, which is not a problem for me. I have a tent, dry clothes and sleeping bag. I’d told Mouhamad that I planned to spend the night. Usman, however, have nothing. His soaked pants and t-shirt, and a rain jacked he left with my pack at the camp, is apparently all he took with him from the village. I’m already shivering, and I can’t imagine how cold the ten hours of darkness would be for Usman. There’s really nothing else to do than to turn around and go back down.
We eat in cover of the camp before unpacking our flashlights. We have about an hour of daylight left.
Just as we reach Camp One proper darkness sets in. This close to the equator, dusk last for mere minutes. The decend from Camp One to the village takes more than three hours in the dark. My flashlight gives out half an hour from the village, so we have to brave the last streams, fields and muddy hills with just one light.
Shortly before 2300 hours – more than eleven hours of climbing – we finally knock on Mouhamad’s door. I’m battered and bruised; my legs would hurt for days to come. The soldier-turn-teacher amazingly lets me take his bedroom for the night. The few reasonable dry items in my backpack luckily includes a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and my sleeping bag. I fall asleep instantly.
The next morning have Mouhamad arranged for a motorbike back to Sangbania. This is not normally something the drivers want to do, but after yesterday someone has taken pity on me and I’m spared walking anywhere today. As to sweeten my morning further the sun breaks out for two hours straight. Me, and most of my belonging stretched out on the ground in front of me, enjoy two hours in the baking sun. This dries both me and enough of my clothes for me to head out of the village completely dry.
It didn’t last long, though. As no less than three terrestrial showers hit during the six hours motorbike riding back to Koidu…
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