The introduction of a car into family life has offered us a freedom that’s gone a long way to making us feel at home.
But it’s not all been plain sailing – or even driving – as a snap decision to head to the beauty spot of Charlotte Falls, east of Freetown, proved.
Bumping down the rocky track down to Charlotte village, which caused even the sturdy Land Cruiser – on loan from the wife’s employer – to lean at an alarming angle around one bend, was heart-stopping enough.
But after finding the bridge at the bottom as ruined as our nerves, causing the abandonment of our sightseeing, the climb back to the main road filled me with dread.
I aborted my first effort after almost getting us lodged in a rut, before taking on an alternative route as daunting, it seemed to me, as scaling the Old Man of Hoy.
We made some progress by zig-zagging across the rutted path. However, it wasn’t long before the only movement was horizontal as the back wheels kicked up clouds of dust.
It was at this moment that the Flump awoke from her slumbers, sniffed the tension in the car, assessed our predicament and declared. “Oh, no. Oh, no. OH, NO…”
I found myself smiling maniacally towards the back seat and declaring “it’s okay, darling, everything’s fine”, while simultaneously thinking “I’m never going to get us out of here”.
At one point, while reversing down the narrow and unstable path in a bid to gain more purchase, I caught the One With The Common Sense with head bowed in prayer instead of eyeing how close we were to the sizeable drop to her right.
Fortunately for us, an angel arrived in the form of a bloke called David. He wandered up and introduced himself as the grandson of the village headwoman before casually asking: “Why don’t you have four-wheel drive engaged?”
Minutes later, David was waving us off at the top of a hill that his sage and, frankly, obvious advice had enabled us to negotiate with something approaching ease. The One With Common Sense and I agreed it was a timely reminder that we ought not to get too comfortable; we hadn’t cracked life here just yet.Still, the independence offered by a set of wheels has transformed my experience of Freetown. With the Flump restrained by a car seat, instead of bouncing around in the back of a taxi, I’ve been able to take in the surrounds properly.
Where I once struggled to see past the orange-brown dust coating every road, roof and tree, I’m seeing the full colour of the city. A five-minute drive takes in a fascinating mish-mash of tiny shops and stalls, people wearing striking African-print outfits and numerous hawkers balancing brightly-coloured bowls on heads, all against a lush green mountain backdrop.
The roads feel chaotic but driving is actually a rather polite affair, with cars on main roads often slowing to let people emerge from tricky junctions. Traffic moves at snail pace around Lumley roundabout – the Oxford Circus of Freetown’s upmarket West End – where, confusingly, vehicles already on the junction give way to those joining it.
Motorbikes weave in and out but, so long as people proceed slowly and steadily, it all seems to work.
In our part of the city, most of the main roads are duel carriageways. I still haven’t worked out which is the slow lane but I tend to stick to what would be the fast lane in Europe to avoid the taxis, bikes and poda-podas (minibuses crammed with dozens of passengers on bench seats) that pull over with only a momentary hand signal as warning.
Away from the main roads, unpaved tracks – churned up in the wet season then baked hard in the dry – wend up some improbable inclines. If you’re brave enough to lift your eyes from the road, you’re rewarded with some breathtaking views taking in rusting iron rooftops, verdant hillsides and Atlantic Ocean.
While you’ll see plenty of swanky 4x4s, much of the traffic consists of beaten-up Toyotas and Nissans, bumping, scraping and dodging the ruts.
Most are emblazoned with mottos. Many are religious, with “God/Allah is Great” a common slogan; others carry names like “Flash” or “Hot 1”; some suggest an ulterior motive, (“Respect the Police” sounds like sucking up to me), while a few are downright offensive: “Manchester United.”
My favourite – spotted on a poda-poda – is “Small, Small”, the Krio phrase meaning “slowly”, which is exactly what I’d be hoping for if I was in the crush on board.
With traffic often like the M1 on a bank holiday weekend, many locals use bike boys to whizz through the jams. People don’t seem quite as ambitious with their cargo as in south-east Asia, where we saw passengers merrily transporting window panes and livestock. However, I did see one Salonean pillion passenger pulling off possibly the greatest ever feat of balance by holding a folded King Size mattress above his head.
One man who’s unlikely to get stuck in traffic is the vice president, who lives nearby. When Victor Bockarie Foh’s cavalcade rolled past the other day, I counted three motorcycle outriders, a police van, no fewer than 12 black 4x4s and a heavily-armed troop carrier. I’m not sure whether the ambulance following in his wake carried his personal medical team or was merely taking advantage of the clear roads.
An even better way of taking in the city, of course, is on foot. If you can stand the heat, then there are some challenging runs. The mile-long slog up to the stupendously-named Bottom Mango takes in a jaw-dropping view and – given I can barely puff along at 11-minute miles – there’s plenty of time to take it in.
Schoolkids enjoy the novelty of a ruddy-faced jogger, offering high-fives, while the odd bloke might holler a “key pee tup” by way of encouragement.
Less encouraging was the policemen who ordered me to use the pavement opposite the barracks. I had casually vaulted a “Stop – Police” sign but, given it was half in the road, I thought it was aimed at the traffic. Thankfully, I was careering downhill too fast for him to stop me, so I shouted “okay” over my shoulder and took on board his advice for next time.
Lumley Beach is the favourite (not to mention flat) trot of many Freetowners, and makes a good seven-mile run from our house and back. The numerous games of football packing the sand alongside the odd military fitness group make quite a sight before 8am on a Sunday.
As I ticked along at a respectable pace, pleased to pass a few younger chaps, one tapped my arm by way of greeting and we jogged along together in time to a pulsing musical accompaniment via his phone.
Inevitably, it wasn’t long before I had to shake his hand, offer a swig of water and send him on his way as I came to a panting halt half-way along the beach. The remaining four miles might have been more of a struggle had they not been brightened by the jovial atmosphere among spectators watching what appeared to be a mass training run.
Many of the runners wore T-shirts, apparently advertising a race.
I was a little conscious of using my smartphone in this area – renowned for pickpockets – so while taking the above photo was a little flustered to be collared by a bloke calling himself “Sir”, which is a name fit for any occasion if ever there was one.
He insisted on giving me his number, which is common here. However, in my discombobulation, I returned the favour and Sir has “flashed” (dialling without connecting when low on credit) a few times since. I’m not really sure it’ll be the start of a beautiful friendship but we’ll see.
The heat might have got to me a little on the way back as I swear I jogged past Yakubu wearing a faded Portsmouth shirt. I decided against chanting “feed the Yak”, suspecting neither aspect of being compared to an overweight Nigerian would go down well here.
English football is massive here and practically everyone seems to own a shirt. Chelsea, Arsenal and Man Utd tops are everywhere.
I’ve not seen any Everton kits but I have spotted one Wigan Athletic shirt and even a St Helens top on one bloke who I suspect might not have been totally au fait with the finer points of rugby league.
Most of these – as with the majority of garments – are the product of a thriving second-hand market. It leads to some incongruous advertising, such as “Delaney for Governor” or “Blackhorse Ales Coalminers Stout”, as well as a plethora of old race T-shirts and out-of-season Christmas slogans.
What never ceases to amaze me, however, is just how good people look. Few people can afford to power washing machines, and hand washing even a sock produces a stream of murky run-off created by the day’s accumulated dust.
Yet school uniforms are immaculate every day, and some of the motorcycle boys look crazy cool – with glasses and helmets operating more as fashion accessories.
Infuriatingly, by comparison, I never fail to look sweaty, grubby and frankly just a bit dull within 10 minutes of leaving the shower. Even the slightly “jazzier” trousers and trainers I bought in a bid to look more at home in Africa leave me looking like an average white man so, for now, I’ll accept my fate and stick to regulation expat beige.