Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Kaba River, also known as the Little Scarcies River, runs south from Guinea, meanders through the north of Sierra Leone and forms the southern boundary of the country’s only national park. Outamba-Kilimi, as it’s called, is home to African’s most dangerous animal, the hippo (who knew!), a rare type of antelope, the occasional elephant, monkeys and chimpanzees…most of which I encountered during a three day visit this week. The elephants, we were told, were still in Guinea (it not their season to be on this side of the border). The chimpanzee protested and scolded from the safety of the forest treetops as we hiked through the interior of park, staying just out of sight but within hearing distance and leaving marks and trails in the damp mud of the forest floor. The hippos gnarled and gnashed their teeth and dove out of sight when our canoe came a little too close to their safety zone and the monkeys greeted us from the far shore of the river as we glided through emerald reflections of trees in a dizzying array of hues and shapes. The rare antelope could only be captured with a zoom lens and zoomed out of sight with the whirring and beeping of the camera. It was a magical, incredibly peaceful and quiet time and place, complete with all elements of the best wilderness camping I’ve ever done…sleeping in a tiny bamboo hut on the river’s edge by the light of the stars and moon, slipping into the cooling stillness of the tree-shaded river for a solo swim after a long hot canoe paddle, eating fish just caught from the river and cooked over a fire with little more than the salt my brother had stashed in a corner of his pack (it made a delicious stone soup as we were eventually joined by some visitors who contributed pepper and rice), taking a long moonlit walk up hill and down vale into the closest tiny village at night to get water from the stream and say hello. The stillness and solitude of the park was a first for me in Sierra Leone and contrasts greatly with life in the village. Interestingly though, a key part of our time at the park was the eight mile hike to a tiny village nestled illegally in the interior of the park. Like all parks around the world, there is a touch of tension between the needs of the people who have historically inhabited this area and the interests of the conservationists in the country who are trying to protect an area of threatened wilderness. The residents, who left for Guinea during the war when the park infrastructure was destroyed as rebels passed through, have returned to the home of their ancestors, claiming promises made have been unfulfilled, but with little other than illegal agriculture to sustain them. We sat under the shade of the largest tree in the village, quenching our thirst with coconuts and oranges and trying out the few words of Susu we picked up along the way, words that sounded surprisingly similar to the Limba and Temne words for thank you and good-bye. After staying one day longer than planned (missing the wake in Mapaki for Mamuna’s death), we took to the bumpy, dusty trails again for the six-hour motorbike ride home, fording streams, crossing the river on a hand-powered ferry and dusting off after our first motor-bike mishap (not a scratch after a particularly steep, rocky, deeply-rutted hill got the better of us). The very sad part of the story is that hardly any Sierra Leoneans have the chance to visit this park; a glance through the guest book (with about 35 entries from the start of the year) tells me that the most frequent visitors are foreign NGO workers (transportation is not easy). The first thing I did on returning the Mapaki (well, the second after greeting friends and family) was to head for the top of the hill on the edge of the village where I sat and watched the sun set over the trees and roofs and remind myself to balance my busy people-filled days with an occasional period of peace and solitude. Interestingly, I’m reading a book by a Canadian Ojibwa writer and have just reached a part that discusses the importance of building solitary time in the wilderness into your life, advice that probably holds as true in the steamy forests of West Africa as it does in the snow-bound wilds of Canada. The hippos will be calling me again, I expect. Stay tuned.
Photo by Kouame - Crossing the Kaba or Little Scarcies River by ferry