The Turtle Islands lie tantalisingly close to Sherbro Island, but are a world away from mainland Sierra Leone and certainly seem that far when trying to visit.
Having arrived in Bonthe [see previous posts about Bonthe and the journey there], we discussed the trip to the Turtle Islands with the boat driver to determine how long it would actually take, having heard several different estimates. We were assured that if we left early (7am) the tide would be right to reach the islands in about an hour an a half. We would have to wait there an hour or so for the tide to ebb, then we could return in similar time. So we agreed and set our alarm clocks.
We departed just after dawn broke with the rising sun reflected by the glassy water. Our boat created a white wake as we sped past sleepy settlements on the low lying shoreline. Small groups of houses appeared, preceded by the sight of tall trees above the normal height of the mangroves. In some places we could just see a dark entrance way into the mangroves, wide enough for canoes, but the settlement remained hidden by the foliage.
After the predicted time, our first view of the islands as they emerged on the horizon.
This is the tiny sand bar known as Nyangei, which is an incredibly high-density settlement on a narrow slither of sand, shown as N on the satellite image below and in close-up. There are over 80 houses on this tiny island. We approached from the north and first tried to go past the west side but were prevented by the emerging football field. We could see the goalposts sitting in the sea off the bottom left corner of the sand, but within half an hour it would be a dry pitch, so we had to retrace our route to avoid being marooned, and passed the other side of the island.
Our first stop was on Bakie – lower centre of the image above [click on it to magnify]. At least half the population came to greet us on the beach and the head man showed the community the cash gift we gave him, before pocketing it for safe keeping. After a refreshing coconut picked for us from a nearby tree, we walked around the island, guided by adults but followed by a posse of children; those with shoes having the advantage, while those without ran from shady spot to shady spot to avoid burning their soles.
Almost all the huts were built from natural materials, with a stick frame filled in with mud from the inside and a thatched roof. Dotted around were small, roofed structures with ladders for access by poultry (centre of photo). Further back in the village were smoke-filled huts where the daily catch is preserved before being transporting to the mainland. The art (or science?) of smoking has been lost in some parts of the country and there have been instances of fish rotting when not correctly smoked.
Shell debris littered the whole area showing how important a resource this is – we later saw a large pile of dried cockles, also ready for trading.
Following the school teacher, we went to see the primary school (photo below) which serves about 100 children; a blackboard on each side so two classes run at once. The older children have to go to Bonthe or the mainland for further schooling. This is a community school not supported by the government.
Having finished the village tour we were shown the Bakie Guest house which is marked on Google Maps and described in the Bradt Guide, but sadly is no longer habitable; the roof was removed by a storm and the building now looks decidedly dilapidated.
We walked from the guest house south along the beach to the end of the sand and unfortunately found ourselves separated from a further beach by a swampy inlet. Later it was passable and the whole coastal stretch around to the Atlantic was available.
It was then time to wait for the tide to flow out, before we could make our return journey, so we sat under a palm tree and relaxed as the villagers went about their business, cooking, playing, hairdressing, mending nets and sitting chatting. On a second pass a long the beach with the vague idea of having a swim, we realised that the stretch of sand just outside the village was in fact also the local toilet, so we passed on quickly and only paddled much further down. The water was not inviting as it shelved slowly and was not well tide washed. It appeared muddy and stirred up easily, so that, and the jelly fish beyond, kept us in the shallows.
Once the tide was deemed right, we said our farewells and set sail across the bay to the next island of Yele where we went through the same routine; greeting the head man (with cash), touring the village, visiting the school and being shadowed by dozens of children.
The settlement on Yele was slightly larger than Baki and had more concrete houses, plus a substantial school building (built a few years ago with help from the Bonthe council); the shiny roof at the bottom of the image.
The soil on these islands is mostly sand and very little grows apart from scrubby vegetation, some fruit trees and plenty of mangroves. In the villages a few people had small vegetable patches, fenced to protect them. The villagers seem to rely heavily on the sea to provide what they need and trade with Bonthe and the mainland for what they lack. It is a remote existence, certainly far from the madding crowd. I am sure if you slung your hammock or pitched your tent, you could spend a night under a canopy of stars away from the frenzy of modern life, but we preferred to return to a comfortable bed.
Most of the boats traversing the area between the islands were powered by poles punted through the shallow waters. It was these shallows, which you see a hint of in the satellite images, which slowed our return journey, the boat having to aim for the deeper parts and creep over the shallowest. Once out into the main river, progress was faster, but it took a good deal longer coming back, not helped by having to conserve fuel until another boat could rendez-vous with us to bring further supplies of diesel.
We had made our trip to the Turtle Islands. We didn’t see any turtles, but had not expected to. Several species are seen hereabouts and nest on these southern beaches. The remote location should be reasonable protection for their breeding sites. They are legally protected in these waters, but with little enforcement, whether the ban on killing them or poaching eggs is effective or not, who knows?
Was the trip worth it? On balance, yes, it was interesting to see these remote islands, which seem to float like bubbles from the tip of Sherbro Island, and the people who inhabit them. So long as your expectations are low, you will not be disappointed.