Turtle Islands Odessey

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.

P1180852We 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.




The Road to Bonthe

freetown to yargoi

My enthusiasm for sharing my impressions of Bonthe meant I wrote the last blog before this one, which explains how we arrived there. So, apologies if you are at all confused!

We never really intended to go to Bonthe, but are glad we did. The real aim was the Turtle Islands (TI on map above), but my propensity for motion sickness had put me off this trip. Most travellers arrive on the Turtle Islands by boat from the Banana Islands, with estimates of the time involved ranging from an optimistic ‘around 3 hours’ (in a speedboat with a following wind and favourable tide) to the actuality experienced by many of 7-8 hours in an open boat (no shade) with optional marooning on sandbanks depending on tide. None of the tales I had heard filled me with the enthusiasm to say ‘let’s go!’. Additionally, on arrival on the islands, the only option for overnight accommodation is to camp, having taken all your supplies with you.

Back to the drawing board. We were then advised the best way to get there is to go to Bonthe, stay there, and take a speed boat to the Turtle Islands for the day – an hour and a half to 3 hours each way, depending who you spoke to.

So we settled on this route and drove to Yagoi, where the speed boat would meet us for transfer to Bonthe. The route is very easy, we were told, go to Moyamba Junction, then take the road for Rutile (Sierra Rutile Company) and just go straight!

We passed the large settlement where the workforce live in the hills before the rutile extraction area which was flat with turquoise lakes.

The route wasn’t quite so straight forward as described, not helped by a few signposts which appeared misplaced, but really depended on how you approached them! We arrived in Yagoi in good time. The Maritime Safety office (hut) was very concerned to record our names to ensure our safety on the water. Though there didn’t seem to be a system for recording our return.


These photographs were taken on our return and look as tranquil as it was. However, our outward journey was a little more lively! I was carried on board and sat behind the driver, whilst the others clambered on board. I wondered how old I looked! We set off along the river, which soon widened and the wind picked up. First a little spray whipped off the waves and I had a refreshing shower, then the breeze increased and buckets of spray headed my way. The driver suddenly noticed, slowed down and suggested I move up front where my companions were blissfully dry. We set off again and this time the wind whipped waves, enhanced by the tide, began to get higher, causing the boat to rise and fall with waves crashing over the stern and all down my back, to complement my wet front! It was, thankfully, not a long ride.

As the river widened we passed areas of rice cultivation along the banks and plenty of mangroves. Some pelicans had found some isolated plants for their nests. It is remarkable how quickly the low shoreline is reduced to a thin line on the horizon (these photos were also taken on the return journey!).

We passed York Island which was once a base for the Royal Africa Company during the 18th century, exporting camwood, ivory and slaves. In 1880s it became the headquarters of Patterson Zochonis trading company (now PZ Cussons of Imperial Soap fame); their abandoned warehouse remains in Bonthe.

Rounding York Island, Bonthe came into view, and we landed beside the Bonthe Holiday Resort where we were to spend the next two nights in comfort.

The bougainvillea along the fence was the prettiest on the island. The paths between buildings were made of cockle shells (not to be tackled in bare feet!) but remarkably effective; being hard wearing and visible at night as they shine in the moonlight. They are also noisy to walk on, so you have warning of visitors!

The resort primarily caters for deep sea fishermen who fly in to grapple with tarpon, a game fish found in these waters. We were the only guests. There are a number of round buildings, named after fish, each with two or three bedrooms, ensuite, and a shared living area. Meals are served in the restaurant block.

Before sunset we wandered around the town, becoming acquainted with its unique ambiance; for more details see my blog Bygone Bonthe. The Turtle Islands beckoned, but that was for another day.




Bygone Bonthe

It is tempting to say that arriving in Bonthe is like stepping back in time, there are few motorised vehicles on the island (we saw one working tractor and a couple of motorcycles), so the pace of life is slowed to a stroll. However if we had stepped back in time in Bonthe, a hundred years ago, or even sixty, we would have found a bustling, thriving, trading centre which is far from the reality today. As Thomas Aldridge observed in 1910; “In the stores of the European firms, in the stores of the Creole traders and of the Syrians, outside the stores, on the roadside pitches, hawkers, pedlars, and itinerating hucksters all vie in their respective ways with one another. There is selling over the big counter, over the small counter, off the strap tray, out of calabashes carried on the heads of the little pickins [sic: children] and even from off the ground itself – all is trade, nothing that brings in ‘cash monies’ comes amiss.” The bustle this suggests is long gone. The remains of its heyday litter the waterfront; decaying warehouses, a broken seawall and abandoned houses.

Compare these photographs with those below taken in 1958, by which time the river had silted up and ships were no longer able to anchor off Bonthe or York Island. Instead launches took cargoes of palm kernels, groundnuts and pissava [dried palm stalks used for brush bristles] out to ships tied up 5 miles downstream. But it was still a lively settlement with a resident District Commissioner.

The ruin above centre is the large building seen behind the jetty. The building on the left is the local court. Just behind it is the jail, surrounded, as is customary, with razor wire topped walls, but as we walked around town on our first evening, our guide indicated three men who had just passed us with a friendly greeting and told us they were the prisoners returning to jail. On further questioning he explained that they were let out each morning and they went to work for someone, returning, by themselves, in the evening. He told us that prisoners applied to be transferred to Bonthe jail from the mainland because they know they will be allowed out during the day. The crime of one of the prisoners was to have stolen one of the solar powered street lights – not the most intelligent crime on a small island; we wondered who he thought he might sell it to?? The RUF leader Foday Sankoh was held here while awaiting trial at the UN Special Court following the war; he died before facing justice.

The decline of Bonthe as a trading settlement began with the opening of the railway which ran across the south of the country to Pendembu. Much of the palm kernel trade, which had previously been shipped out of Bonthe, diverted to the railway and the docks of Freetown. The silting of the rivers followed and gradually Bonthe was bypassed.

There are many active churches and mosques in Bonthe and a few in ruins.

St Matthew’s was consecrated in 1900, had taken four years to build and cost £5000 (probably close to £2m in today’s money) – raised locally – and could seat 500 people. The three stained glass windows, which we were able to see whilst the church was being prepared for Palm Sunday, were shipped out from England. One was in memory of those killed in the Hut Tax war of 1898, one for the pastor who began the project but died before it was completed and the third to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The latter was unveiled by Thomas Aldridge (then District Commissioner) and the pastor’s wife.P1180896

St Patrick’s is in the compound of the school with the same name and had some rivalry with St Joseph’s nearby, particularly on Empire Day, according to Peter Tucker in his autobiography ‘The Mission Boy from Shebar’. The school bands paraded through the streets to the playing fields and back; the crowds followed their favourite band – always St Patrick’s he claims!

The evening we arrived there was a football tournament being played at the playing field to the west of the town. We could hear the excitement from far away. Some supporters found creative ways of not paying the entrance fee.

These pillars were at the base of a huge water tower which used to provide water to the entire town, but is no longer shiny and no longer in use. A little further along the track, just before the airfield is the town cemetery, which we reached as the sun set behind the palms.

One of the tourist sights of the town is the Clock Tower at the end of the main street, Medina Street. Unfortunately, even though the tower is now painted in patriotic colours, it no longer has a clock. The rusted remains of one face languishes inside the tower. The photo taken in 1958 shows the clock in situ. It also shows the palm trees a little shorter and either telephone or electricity wires – which are long gone.

So many of the old houses are looking sadly neglected and unlikely to last much longer, but most are probably a hundred or so years old, so may last a little while yet.

update: 29.04.16: found the following picture of Bonthe dated 1915!

victoria road bonthe 1915

The old Wesleyan Methodist church is also a sad sight, slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Nature is also doing its best to reclaim another of Bonthe’s tourist highlights – the tree in the ship….


Long since marooned on the shore, the rusting hulk makes a good plant container.

P1180923 (2)

A local speciality is furniture made from palm stalks, stacked in alternate layers to form boxes. A back is attached to a chair with a slopping stalk.





Some of the people we met around town:

And the lady who insisted that I ‘snap her’ while she drew water from the well:


On our second evening the sun set behind the town leaving us to reflect on the calm waters of the lagoon (or ‘swamp’ as Google maps so succinctly puts it).



Sierra Leone – why the name?

Every book, history and website that discusses Sierra Leone has a story to tell about how this country was named. There is no one accepted account which can be fully verified, but I will attempt to include as many as possible and offer my own theory.

While there were undoubtedly people living in the area before anyone passed by in a ship, these people have left only fragmented oral history; they had no means of making written records, much less maps. We therefore rely on reports made by later visitors who recorded what they heard about the names of geographical features.

One such source is a book written in 1803 by Thomas Winterbottom, called ‘An Account of the native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone’, which is fortunately available online. He reports that the local Temne people called the area Romarong which means the Mountain  [marong is mountain and ‘ro’ a common precursor to place names in Temne eg. Ro-baga]. They called the river which meets the sea here, Mitomba – now known as the Sierra Leone River. Another name for the river was Tagrin, which seems to be a name deriving from the Bullom people of the north shore, as the name survives today as the point from which the ferry leaves the north shore, which is also identified by Winterbottom as Tagrin Point. He explains that the northern side of the river is Leopard’s Island , known by the Bullom as ‘Ee-yil-eek-bill’ [ee-yil = island/ eek-bill = leopard] and is at the top edge of his map below. An earlier Portuguese account says the locals call the river and village to north Taguyri, whilst the country to the south and village there is Pymto/Pinto. This also says the mountains have been named Serra Lyoa because they are “even steeper than that of Sintra (in southern Portugal) and ten leagues in circumference” {Valentin Fernandes: Description de la Cote Occidentale d’Afrique 1510}.  A simple explanation which, maybe others thought, needed a bit more elaboration?

winterbottom map 1802A

Winterbottom quotes Cada Mostos’s account of Pedro di Sinta’s voyage [1462] that they called the cape on the southern side of the estuary, Cap Liedo/Ledo ‘on account of the gay appearance that and the country afforded them’. At the other end of the range of mountains they found three islands (Banana Islands) which “they called Salvezze and the mountains Sierra Leona, on account of the thunder upon the summit of it, which is continually wrapped up in clouds and mist”.  This must have been during the rainy season, most likely July-September. Winterbottom also observes that the hills viewed from the Bullom shore appear ‘heaped upon each other in a very irregular manner’.

gun fireThis footnote on page 16 refers to the mountains which face the Sierra Leone river, but are essentially the same chain which is the backbone of the peninsula, and suggest the Portugese called these “Montes claros” or ‘Clear Mountains’ because of the loud echo they returned from gunfire and thunder [although the connection eludes me].

An account dated 1841, by the Rev Samuel Abraham Walker, claims Sierra Leone means ‘Lioness Mountain’ and that most interpreters say it is because ‘the area was found to abound in lions’, but follows this with a quote from Winterbottom, denying that lions are, or ever were, found in the area. Rev Walker also suggests the name might derive from the noise of the surf on the shore being lion-like [although other commentators have said that the surf on this shore is not particularly noisy.]; his source being Hardouin’s notes on Pliny [translated in 1680s].

This made me curious. Why was Pliny [born 23 CE] writing about Sierra Leone? In his fifth book on the History of Nature he describes what is known of Africa. He reports the voyage of Hanno of Carthage in 5th or 6th BCE. Modern interpretations of this voyage think it reached as far as Gabon, passing the west coast with the following descriptions, others speculate it only reached Sierra Leone.


Mountain Barce is thought to be the the Dakar peninsula in Senegal. The River Bambotus could be either the Sierra Leone or Sherbro according to some interpretations as both have fresh water at the mouth suitable for both crocodiles and hippos, whereas the River Gambia (another candidate) is salty. There is much scholarly discussion about how far Hanno actually sailed. Pliny is writing from a single surviving copy of the voyage report and the original may have been written deliberately vaguely or even misleading in order to confuse competitors. Unfortunately, I cannot find the surf reference quoted by Rev Walker, which he appears to have read in a different publication.

It is generally accepted that the name Sierra Leone derives in some way from Portuguese, but whether the name can be attributed to one individual is disputed, as cogently argued by C Magbaily Fyle. Many voyages were made by the Portuguese along this coast from 1446, each captain of which would have made his own charts and likely kept them secret to prevent others exploiting the knowledge. That the name Serra Lyoa or a variation thereof [Sierra/serra liona/leona/leoja/leola/leoa/leao] appeared on such maps is confirmed by the use of the term after Pedro di Sinta’s voyage. milton

The name was certainly used, and the reputation for stormy weather was known, in the 17th century as Milton refers to both in the poem Paradise Lost, published in 1667; referring to the southern wind [Notus] and ‘thundrous clouds from Serraliona’.

Although the naming of Sierra Leone is accorded to the Portuguese and later the British who formalised the name, it is the French [Normans] who can claim to have been the first Europeans in modern times to navigate these shores. A contemporary account of the voyages of discovery sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century, reports the exploration, trading and settlement  along the coast by sailors from Dieppe in the 14th century. Kaye Centers examines the evidence for these claims in her thesis, but sits on the fence, saying there is some evidence to support such claims, but not enough to be conclusive. The Normans claim to have settled at the places on this map: Petit Dieppe, Petit Paris, Assini, La Mina, Akra

map of french WA voyage

However they appear to have sailed past Sierra Leone without landing.

One suggestion for the name Serra [saw] leone is that the mountains look like lion’s teeth. But I think this unlikely:

It would take a great deal of imagination to construe these mountains as lion’s teeth, unless a very old lion with worn out molars.

However, another theory put forward by Kamara  and others for the reason behind the naming of Sierra Leone, is that the shape of the mountains from out at sea look like a lion and this combined with the sounds of thunder were the source of the name.  I feel that this is more likely:lions

  1. Head 2. Rump of recumbent lions

Sailors approaching land are likely to ‘see’ shapes in outline and these are at least as good as other ‘Lion Mountains’ around the world, for example Lion Head, Cape Town, which I could never quite make out.

P1130007 (2)

Lion Head, Cape Town

Or Lion Rock, Hong Kong.

So although I cannot point to strong historical evidence for this theory, I can show why it has credence. Perhaps the roaring was added to give more authenticity and colour to the tale.

I have found no source showing that lions were ever found here. Leopards are certainly mentioned and as forest dwelling animals are more likely. All early descriptions of the country say it was forested, which as far as I’m aware is not the natural habitat of lions. Whatever the reason for the original name, it has stuck and the lion has been adopted for the coat of arms of the country. If you have any other theories to share, please leave a comment.

Coat of arms



Update: I just came across another supporter of the lioness shape theory; non other than the polyglot explorer Richard Burton who visited Sierra Leone in 1882 and reported the following:

“The reason is disputed; some invoke the presence of the Queen of the Cats, others the leonine rumbling of the re-echoed thunder. The latter suggested the Montes Claros of the Portuguese. Cà da Mosto in 1505 tells us that the explorers ’gave the name of Sierra Leone to the mountain on account of the roaring of thunder heard from the top, which is always buried in clouds.’ But the traveller, entering the roadstead, may see in the outline of Leicester Cone a fashion of maneless lion or lioness couchant with averted head, the dexter paw protruding in the shape of a ground-bulge and the contour of the back and crupper tapering off north-eastwards. At any rate, it is as fair a resemblance as the French lion of Bastia and the British lion of ’Gib.’ Meanwhile those marvellous beings the ’mammies’ call ’the city’ ’Sillyown,’ and the pretty, naughty mulatto lady married to the Missing Link termed it ’Sa Leone.’ I shall therefore cleave to the latter, despite ’Mammy Gumbo’s’ box inscribed ’Sa leone.’”





Kent, Western Peninsula, Sierra Leone

The usual reason to visit Kent is to catch a boat to the Banana Islands, about half an hour away, but we decided to have a look around the village’s historic sites.


Our first impression of the village was not the best as we parked beside an earthen football pitch, strewn with plastic debris. Some men loitering nearby became a little belligerent when we said we just wanted to walk around the village, but later were more amenable and offered to show us around.

Boats are launched from both sides of a sandy isthmus which joins the village to a rocky outcrop. Fishermen were busy mending their nets. The Banana Islands floated hazily on the distant horizon.

From the fishing port, a sweep of pristine sand curves towards the hills. This beautiful beach was deserted. The lack of facilities and lack of any road direct to the beach must deter visitors, although there are a couple of resorts at the far end. The superstitious might be put off by the presence of a graveyard just behind the beach. A beautiful location to be laid to rest, marred slightly by the ubiquitous plastic debris blowing around behind the beach. Men were clearing the beach, but seemed to dump their collection behind the sand.

Between the village and the fishing port is the remains of the old slave baracoon, marked by a laterite wall, in places being absorbed back to nature. In the middle is the current primary school built directly on what was the holding pen for slaves – now only visible through small slits which allowed a minimum of fresh air into the space (the black section of the wall). The small door was barred and locked, but it was obvious that the height of the inner chamber was less than an adult would need to stand. The quarters above, now replaced, were used by the slave traders.

Back in the village we were shown other remains of old buildings used by slave traders, who collected slaves from the interior here, before transferring them to the Banana Islands or other trading points such as Bunce Island where they would be loaded on ocean going vessels to cross the Atlantic.

Down a track, to another part of the shore we found an abandoned sea-pool and derelict house. This was the seaside home of Siaka Stevens, former president.

The Stevens family still owns the site and a building next door, which was at one time a library, but is being renovated as a private house.

The church service was in full swing as we passed by and the two policemen on duty at the old colonial police station were busy doing their washing.

So, having thanked our guide we left Kent content that we had seen the historic sites. We returned past Burreh beach to the less visited John Obey. Here at Tribewanted, we ordered lunch then walked the length of the approximately 2km pristine beach, which is backed by a large lagoon preventing access from the peninsula road. At the far end of the beach a private dwelling has the only other access to the road.

Tribewanted aims to develop sustainable tourism in cooperation with local communities. Guests stay and get involved in building the sustainable infrastructure. Here at John Obey, one of the projects was the adobe houses inspired by CalEarth made from local materials and designed to have natural air conditioning with intakes low down on the walls and outlets high up (using the principle of warm air rising).


We went into the larger dome (not pictured) and found, in the middle of the day, it was indeed cool inside. There are also two wooden huts for rent, with bucket showers. The toilets on site are composting in line with the sustainable ethos.

Our lunch of grilled fish, chipped sweet potato and papaya was served overlooking the sea at a shady table. Nearby hammocks swayed in the breeze. It’s certainly a peaceful spot in which to chill for a few hours or indeed to stay overnight.







Banana Islands, Sierra Leone

Just off the southern end of the peninsula, on which Freetown is the northern tip, the Banana Islands spill like drops from a glass into the Atlantic. The longest island is about 6 kilometres long and is the site of the ‘capital’ Dublin. It is joined to the smaller island, Ricketts, site of the second settlement with the same name, by a rocky bridge and beyond that is the tiny uninhabited Mes Mieux. A population of about 1000 live in the two villages. Although it is possible to walk between the two, it is easier to travel by boat.

Many visitors take a local boat from Kent, the nearest point on the mainland, but we went by speedboat from Freetown in around an hour and a half, bouncing over the relatively calm sea. We stepped into the shallows of one [left] small sandy beach and walked along dusty forest paths to another beach [right], our lunch spot. Here we were met by our guide, the schoolmaster/pastor who took us on an historic tour of the island.

[click on images for bigger version]

First stop was an old well, still one of the water sources. Our guide seemed a little confused about its age, claiming it was 2000 years old, built by the Portuguese, but later correctly saying the Portuguese were here in the 15th to 16th centuries. Next was a fortification built some way behind the beach on which we had landed. Three small cannons, one bearing the date 1813, lay half buried in the ground which was raised by a stone wall from the surrounding area. It seemed too far from the shore to be much of a defensive position, but nearby was another fortification nearer the shore and slightly elevated. Here, we were told, were the slaver’s buildings where they selected slaves suitable for transportation. Those too old or sick were cast into a pit a short way off – although this pit could be the remains of a well as suggested by Sierra Leone Monuments Commission.

On a lighter note, we were taken to the place where oral tradition has it that John Newton had a divine revelation. Newton was abandoned by a naval vessel in West Africa and given, by the slaver Amos Clow, to his mistress, who enslaved Newton on Plantain Island. He wasP1180440 rescued in 1748 by a ship his father had sent. On the return voyage, a storm and subsequent delivery there-from, caused Newton to convert to Christianity, but he continued in the slave trade until 1754 – possibly during this time visiting the Banana Islands again and seeing the light? He then became an Anglican clergyman who influenced Thomas Scott, co-founder of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) which was later closely involved in the early settlement of Freetown. He co-wrote numerous hymns, probably the most famous of which is known as ‘Amazing Grace’. He also counselled William Wilberforce to remain in parliament and do God’s work there. Newton wrote a pamphlet ‘Thoughts upon the slave trade’ which he sent to all MPs during the campaign for abolition of the slave trade, describing the horrors which he had personally witnessed. He died in 1807 shortly after the passing of the Slave Trade Act. Following abolition the Royal Navy set up posts along the West African coast from which to board slaving ships. Banana Islands was one of these. The ‘recaptives’ were then taken to Freetown and settled in the new Colony, set up by the British Government in 1808 so that slavers could be tried there.

In front of this small white church is a large bell, cast in Sheffield in 1881, which is still used to summon the faithful. The school, nearby, uses an empty gas cylinder hanging from a tree to call the children. Beside the church are the ruined walls of a former building which was too big to maintain. The sad state of the current building with its sagging ceiling and benches crumbling from termite attack, seem to indicate the problem remains, despite some support from the diocese of Chichester.


Termite mound beside forest path

The complex society of termites became the passion of another colourful character who lived on the Banana Islands for four years from 1771, Henry Smeathman. He collected specimens for gentlemen scientists like Sir Joseph Banks and Dr John Fothergill, but turned from botany to entomology and became an expert on termites. He later made a living lecturing about them and is famous for his illustrations – see them here. Not unlike a mound we passed and the ones we saw at Picket Hill. Smeathman cultivated a vegetable garden and also reports playing golf in the cool of the afternoon. He was later instrumental in the founding of Freetown, by suggesting the location as a good one for a new colony of freed slaves.


The forest tracks took us past a variety of dwelling across the island to the cemetery, the resting place of many from centuries past. Mostly overgrown, some family areas are still used and well tended. Graves can be re-used after seven years.

The fishing port is on the south coast down a stone-lined path which reaches the beach between two enormous cotton trees. It is a picturesque spot with colourful fishing boats, sand, azure sea and distant rocks covered in birds, which we now know are ‘white birds’ thanks to our guide.

The ‘pink church’ was a large building, home to a flock of swallows nesting inside the roof and swooping between the rafters and open windows. Some interesting plaques remember John Campbell, sunk by enemy action in 1916, and Mrs Comfort Campbell (63) who died in a raid in 1898.

Back at the beach we swam in the warm waters and had fresh fish for lunch. Our entertainment from the shady terrace was weaver birds preparing new nests. Quite amazing to see them arrive with a long strand of green vegetation and weave it into place – all with no hands!

The return trip took us closer to shore, a great perspective on the peninsula from which we have so often gazed out to sea. The alarming rate of deforestation is clearer still from this vantage point.

As the sun set, we rounded Cape Sierra Leone with its old lighthouse, the western most point of the mainland of Sierra Leone and one of the points on the African continent closest to South America.





The Connaught Hospital and environs

Back to the Connaught and the tour courtesy of Jane Gibson in December, after the detour into Why the Connaught? and a hike. Before entering the main compound we took a short stroll around an historic part of Freetown stopping first at the entrance to King’s yard.

The plaque reads “Royal Hospital and Asylum for Africans, rescued from slavery by British valour and philanthropy. Erected AD MDCCCXVII [1817] His Excellency Lieut Col MacCarthy Gov”. King’s Yard was where returned freed slaves were kept in quarantine when they first arrived in the colony. It later became part of the Colonial Hospital which burnt down in 1920 and is now used by the international charity Sightsavers and is the main eye clinic.

Further along Wallace Johnson Street (formerly Water Street) we looked down on this dirt slope, which was where a branch line of the railway used to wind down to the dockside, allowing goods to be loaded from ships on to the train. We passed St George’s Cathedral [1828] and the statue in front of it of Tom Peters, an escaped slave, who was evacuated from the United States to Nova Scotia by the British  and subsequently was instrumental in persuading the British Government to establish Freetown.

At the end of the street is the former Water Street Station. It was here that the Hill Railway, the dockside branch and the mainline, going up country, all connected. During the war the station building became a refuge for displaced people and part of it now serves as the bus station.

Water Street Station in former times [above] and today [below]

The last stop on our tour of historic sights was the so-called Portuguese steps – which have nothing to do with any Portuguese, but were built by Governor MacCarthy around 1818 to allow access from the town to the dockside. For film buffs, they feature in the 1954 ‘Heart of the Matter’ starring Trevor Howard.

We returned along Wallace Johnson Street to the Conaught Hospital, where ebola prevention measures, such as hand washing before entering, were still in place. Beyond the security post is the triage area where patients receive their initial assessment. This is one of the innovations introduced by the King’s Sierra Leone Partnership [KSLP] which has been working with the Connaught since 2012. The team were on the ground when the ebola outbreak hit Sierra Leone. One of these was Terry Gibson, a retired consultant, who remained, as a volunteer, throughout the crisis and kept the hospital functioning largely without the support of other doctors, some of whom had died of ebola, others were absent. Read his blog about the experience here with a plea for others to step up and follow his example.

Once through the entrance the large central courtyard is revealed. It is criss crossed by paths covered with corrugated roofs to protect from rain and sun. The ward blocks are set apart so the shady verandahs and large windows on all sides allow the breezes to ventilate the building – the colonial architects knew how to build for the climate in a time before air-conditioning. This is still an advantage in a country with very little electric power.

The small building pictured is the new oxygen bottling plant built by KSLP which is an important contribution to improved patient care.

We finished our tour in the physiotherapy department where patients were exercising on two donated ex-gym cycling machines, one of which no longer has any resistance. A step-trainer blocked one wall – donated, but not working. A few patients raised and lowered arms with strings on the wall, but the staff struggle to rehabilitate patients. On one side were a pile of donated, high specification wheelchairs destined for children with cerebral palsy, but I had to wonder how long they would last out in the community where pavements are lacking, obstacles abound and the most usual use for any wheeled gadget (baby strollers in particular, but I have seen a wheelchair used) is to carry an icebox from which to sell drinks.

Basic equipment is scarce and patients have to pay for consultations and any additional diagnostic tests and medicines. The exceptions are pregnant women and children under five. Dialysis equipment was installed some time ago, but is yet to be commissioned.

Medical staff coming from Europe struggle to reconcile their training with such a resource constrained environment, where even simple equipment such as walking frames could benefit patients so much. Items such as crutches, which the NHS don’t bother to recall because it costs too much to sterilise them, could be used here to great effect. It is not that patients here don’t deserve sterilised equipment, but as an alternative to nothing, second hand is acceptable.

Complaints about British hospitals pale into insignificance when you realise this is the main hospital in Freetown. In the UK we have a lot to be grateful for and the NHS, with all its problems, is definitely high up on that list. Another is that we don’t have slums like the one in Kroo Town immediately behind the Connaught. Looking over the seaward wall there are pigs and people scavenging in the mud washing down from the main rubbish dump,which smoulders day and night.

Kroo Town was once a bucolic bay as illustrated in an old album of pictures discussed in this blog. Sierra Leone has come a long way since those days, but has much further to go before its people have access to adequate shelter, education and healthcare.


Big Water to Picket Hill

Definitely no Sunday stroll, this was a serious hike, uphill most of the way to the highest point on the Western Peninsula, Picket Hill 2954ft (900m) . The distance was about 4 miles each way (6.4km) but in 30C that was a sweaty 3.5 hours up and 2.5 hours down. See here for satelite image and GPS track courtesy of McShizzle 2013.


The first section of the trail is an old path which crossed the peninsula from York to Waterloo . It was renovated a few years ago, however, since then, many trees have fallen across the trail, necessitating detours through the bush. It is essential to hire a guide from the village of Big Water (see below for details). Even though familiar with the route, the guide cut marks on the uphill trunks of trees, with his machete, as we passed – easy to see on your way down!

We paused at an old resting house which was constructed of remarkably well cut laterite blocks. The roof is mostly long gone and the forest is reclaiming the rest, but it bears witness to travellers of old who used this route across the peninsula.

[click on images for larger viewing]

The walking is never easy or without hazards – even the level areas are criss crossed with sneaky vines which catch your shoes and laces, the steeper rocky parts are strewn with dead but slippery leaves which slide when you tread on them and some parts are simply climbing a boulder filled stream bed (thankfully dry at this time of year!).


However, when I paused for breath (which I was forced to do often), I began to appreciate the quiet and tranquillity of the forest. There was very little insect noise (only a few cicadas later in the afternoon) and only a few bird calls. One sounded like a blow out party hooter and another made a strange mixture between rasping and mewling. I asked the guide what kind of bird it was – he replied “a big bird”. Numerous colourful butterflies flitted around and settled tantalisingly briefly, but not enough time for a photograph. Fortunately we saw few ants (not my favourite creatures) even on the fallen decayed wood, but did see evidence of their presence in the little architectural gem pictured.

This forest is mostly secondary growth – the largest trees were removed centuries ago – but the high canopy gives welcome shade for most of the walk. A few impressive trees disappear above, some with huge buttress roots snaking around their base. In places a fallen tree shows how new  space are opened up in such forests, allowing new growth from the forest floor. This forest is under pressure on all sides from illegal land clearance despite it having been declared a Forest preserve. The little wildlife that remains seems to be nocturnal as we saw nothing else. However on a rock beside the stream we crossed at the base of the walk were small piles of what looked like shattered shells. The guide told me they were crab shells left there by the fresh water crocodiles which live in the river. These crocodiles are quite small, but I was even less tempted to take a dip. There were numerous small fish in the water but only one that looked worth catching.

After two and a half hours we emerged from the forest on to a rocky plateau from which there were views down to Waterloo – although the harmattan haze made it less spectacular than it could be. My two fellow hikers continued to the top of the hill – another hour of climbing – to appreciate the 360 degree views, but also rather hazy. At least they can claim to have ‘peaked’.

Going down was not easy either! Every step a lottery of rolling rocks, loose leaves, vines and gravel. But we made it and certainly felt as if we had some exercise!

Back in Big Water it was washing day; the clothes we had seen earlier being washed in the river were now hanging out to dry on the rails along the bridge – or in this case, mostly blown on to the ground.



If you want to do this hike: Call first at the chief’s house (centre right of above picture – last house south of bridge) to ask permission and engage a guide. If you want to call a guide in advance: Bockarie 088205379 or Ibrahim Bangura 077666251

The charge is currently Le50,000 per person to the village, plus your donation to the guide(s).

  • wear sturdy shoes/trainers or hiking boots
  • take plenty of water
  • take food
  • hats and sunglasses optional as mostly in shade
  • set off early

Good luck!


Why the Connaught?

Last December I visited the Connaught Hospital in Freetown, which is the main referral hospital in the city and has served as such for over a hundred years. I was shown round by Jane Gibson whose husband, Terry, had been working at the Connaught for nearly two years, before and throughout the ebola outbreak (see here for his blog in 2014). So, my first paragraph of this blog about the tour was to be a short history of the Connaught Hospital to set the scene. However, after referring to Wikipedia for some background information, I set off on a different trail: “Connaught Hospital was opened in 1912 by the Duke of Connaught, Prince Arthur. President Kabbah re-opened the hospital on May 5, 2006, alongside the Princess Christian Maternity Hospital (PCMH).” I googled Prince Arthur and found that he was the seventh and favourite child of Queen Victoria and in addition to a highly decorated military career was made Duke of Connaught.

However, he was also appointed Governor General of Canada in 1911 and remained there until after the start of WWI, so he couldn’t have opened the hospital in 1912 (good old Wiki!!).  I recalled seeing old photographs of his visit to Sierra Leone.

duke arriving


This confirms he visited in December 1910. This visit was on his return journey, on board the Balmoral Castle of the Union-Castle line, from South Africa where he had opened the first parliament of the new nation state. With no further helpful information on the Connaught Hospital available on the internet I headed off to the National Archives.

Government accounts  (Blue books) are a good source of information and I discovered that the sum of £636 7s 3d was spent on a reception for HRH Duke of Connaught on 15th December 1910. It must have been a lavish affair as that is the equivalent of £57980 at 2014 prices!

Evidence of his opening or renaming the hospital was harder to track down. In the Blue Book for the year 1910 the hospital was called the Colonial Hospital. Checking subsequent years it remained the Colonial Hospital. It was not until 1920 that new information came to light:

P1180258 (2)

In April 1920 the Governor proposed to the Secretary of State that compensation of £10 each should be paid to the female nurses who lost personal effects in the February fire. In May the Chief Dispenser, Assistant Chief Dispenser, Second Class Dispenser and the Gate Keeper all applied for compensation too.

The accounts show £8820 spent in 1920, £18502 in 1921 and £12405 in 1922 on the new hospital but it is still called the Colonial Hospital. The Blue Book for 1923 is unfortunately missing, but in 1924 it is suddenly called the Connaught Hospital. In the same year a mortuary is added at a cost of £217 18s 7d. So at some point, probably in 1923, the decision was made to rename the hospital.

Many other sites and publications seem to repeat the erroneous Wiki information, but I tracked down a 1961 Government Information Service publication which claimed “Duke of Connaught visited Sierra Leone and laid the foundation stone of a hospital in Freetown which bears the name ‘Connaught Hospital’.” However Sierra Leone Studies 15-17 p188 (The Journal of the Sierra Leone Society 1961) tells us “visit of Duke of Connaught …. in 1910…. He laid the foundation stone of the present Law Courts …. After the destruction by fire of the old Colonial Hospital in 1920 the new building was named after him The Connaught Hospital.”


The stone from the Law Courts supports this statement, so this seems to be the most likely story, but does not explain why the hospital was renamed in this way!


One more strand may be relevant. From 1920 to 1924 the Duke of Connaught’s son, known as Prince Arthur of Connaught, was Governor General of South Africa. His wife, Princess Alix was a trained nurse and very active with the Red Cross. It is possible that they visited Sierra Leone at some point to or from South Africa – could the  hospital have been renamed after them?

If anyone has further information, please comment below.

More on the hospital itself next time!

Ebola free! Ebola don don!

P1160899 P1160906

Yesterday evening we spotted a small rainbow high above Freetown which seemed fitting on the eve of the announcement by WHO that Sierra Leone is ebola free after 42 days with no new cases. The mood in Freetown is one of celebration and reflection; celebrating the end of the ebola outbreak, but reflecting on the 3589 people who died of the virus, including 221 health worker of whom 11 were doctors. The President addressed the nation from the official ceremony this morning and cautioned against complacency. Although the outbreak is over, it doesn’t mean that ebola is gone for ever – new cases are still occurring in neighbouring Guinea. He urged the population to continue with health precautions and report all deaths so that swabs can rule out ebola.

The President’s theme was that this is a new beginning for Sierra Leone. A lot remains to be done to improve the healthcare system and strengthen the economy but he thanked the international community for their help in ending the crisis.

In the meantime, the people will celebrate in their own way. The general sense is of relief and joy. Last night a countdown was held at the iconic cotton tree in central Freetown and tonight a candle light parade is planned there. It is wonderful for the country that its ‘quarantine’ status has been removed and the recovery can begin. In the local language Krio, ‘don’ means finish but also indicates a present perfect (something has happened) so, ‘don don’ means it has finished. It’s the best way to sum up today – ebola don don.