When the cop flagged me down, I knew what was coming.
I’d previously given a couple of his colleagues the swerve by pretending not to see them while negotiating roundabouts.
But as this bloke was standing directly in front of me, it was either run him over or stop and face the music. I wound down the window and offered my sunniest persona. He asked to see my licence.
Now, I don’t own one on account of the application still being processed. No matter; I can temporarily use my UK licence. But, as I told the officer, it was locked in the house for safe keeping.
“Ah, then you have to pay a fine. Allow me into your car while I escort you into the Army barracks.”
The barracks. Since when did Sierra Leonean squaddies deal with traffic violations?
I’d heard much about police corruption here – an acquaintance of The One With The Common Sense never goes anywhere without enough cash to bribe an officer – and I’m fairly sure he was Military Police and so not entitled to issue penalties. So I wasn’t going down without a fight.
Doing a layman’s impression of a Star in a Reasonably Priced Car, I floored it to the barracks before braking sharply to trundle past the armed guards.
Officer Koroma showed me scores of cars “impounded” from unlicensed drivers (they looked remarkably like ambulances and government vehicles) and demanded 200,000 Leones.
I truthfully told him I didn’t have that sum (about 25 quid ) to hand.
“So, what are we going to do?” he asked. At this point, I think I was supposed to say “hang on, perhaps this license is valid” and show some folded-up banknotes for inspection.
However, stubbornness got the better of me. I demanded a ticket and offered to drive him to my house to get the cash. Unimpressed, he told me to walk.
So I presented my Get Out Of Jail card: “Fine. Are you going to look after my daughter?”
It turns out that toddlers are a valuable bargaining tool, particularly when those trying to extort cash are blissfully unaware of their presence.
Wide-eyed with shock when he realised she’d been in the back the whole time, and clearly not wanting to deal with the added complication of booking a child, he told me: “I’ll let you go this once, for the sake of the ‘Pikin’.”
This proved to be the first of three brushes with authority inside five days.
A real traffic officer let me be after inspecting my license. However, I reckon my “official vehicle” markings – stickers I’d light-fingered after helping out with last year’s Ealing Half Marathon – were what really scared her off.
Then, after getting lost (again) in the maze that is downtown Freetown and finding myself directly outside the State Building, I ended up with a soldier in the passenger seat.
Thankfully, he didn’t guide me into some blind alley and try to part me from my cash (no Flump to rescue me on this occasion).
Instead, he let me through the barricade and escorted me to my destination. As I braced myself for the cash demand, he only asked for the transport costs back to his post.
I gave him the fare plus enough for a beer. After all, he’d saved me a lot of bother… Oh, and he had a massive gun.
We’d marked Sierra Leone’s Independence Day (April 27) with a trip to the beach – the preferred option of many locals. However, some of their compatriots preferred to celebrate in a more traditional way by dressing one of their number as a “devil”.
Secret societies and their belief in magic, witchcraft and even human sacrifice are still said to play an influential role here, and I won’t pretend to know anything much about them.
However, I’d wager that mass consumption of European lager and the ritual beating of car tyres haven’t historically figured in the groups’ activities.
That’s what we encountered a couple of times on the way home, as groups of young men sent forth their devil – wearing a grotesque cloth mask and raffia skirt – to gurn on the bonnet, while they demanded cash.
Comforted by the fact they’d done the same to the taxi driver in front, so weren’t just picking on Westerners, I opted not to mimic the cabbie’s angry gesticulations and simply grinned until they decided I was a harmless idiot and let us pass.
It had been a day when everything had gone to plan but I instantly regretted saying as much to a friend we bumped into on the way hope.
Within hours, I’d been chundered on, put my foot through the shower tray as I tried to wash the Flump’s vomit from my chest hair, and then thrown up on again just at the moment the power failed and we were plunged into total darkness.
If we can stop our daughter eating sand and drinking seawater, we might avoid a repeat.
However, I’ve no such hope for the shoddy workmanship in our house. The shower tray had already been patched once with the kind of wayward sealant technique that makes my dodgy DIY look worthy of a Trust-a-Trader entry.
The fact we have a choice of three other showers to use until it’s fixed sums up the paradox that is our house.
To outsiders, it’s a grand villa of the type inhabited by drug dealers on the Costa del Crime. However, its handsome plaster ceilings and tiled floors come with furniture that’s falling to bits. Our doors – be they internal, cupboard, sliding or shower – lose handles and hinges at a rate of about one a week.
Still, if ever we needed to put these first-world problems into context, a five-minute walk in any direction would take in plenty of homes patched together from corrugated iron, wood and plastic sheeting.
Never mind our flimsy showers, you regularly see kids washing in the water from a burst pipe over an open drain just down the road.
Nonetheless, venting frustration is essential to preserving your sanity. And that’s where the expat community comes into its own.
Our circle of friends now includes parents from a playgroup that meets in a different member’s house each Thursday. For 90 exhausting minutes, I try to snatch sensible conversation while limiting the Flump’s toy-stealing and eye-gouging antics.
Last week, myself and another British dad, George, wandered into one of Lumley’s drinking dens for a “quiet pint”. We’d barely sat down when two fresh beers appeared, courtesy of the chairman of the local branch of the motorcycle drivers’ union – an aggressively friendly bloke who seemed as well-oiled as his finest Kawasaki.
We’d only just flipped their caps when another round materialised, followed by the chairman’s small entourage.
Things rapidly escalated. At one stage, George and were sitting with three drinks each.
It proved an evening of much laughter, man-love and backslapping, despite the fact I couldn’t make head nor tail of their dialect (nor they mine).
At one stage, a steaming bag of “African meat” was produced from somewhere outside. It turned out to be goat with a fiery coating. It took a bit of chewing but was absolutely delicious (if still carrying a kick next morning).
Such was the all-consuming bonhomie, it took a good while to extricate ourselves and they followed us part-way home before calling the next day, keen to do it all again. George and I were left to plead parental responsibilities as a cop out.
Instead, I’ve stuck to more genteel activities like joining a Birds and Breakfast walk at the chimpanzee sanctuary just outside Freetown.
My twitching ambitions have been stunted somewhat here. (The One With The Common Sense shows limited patience at my whipping out binoculars en route to the supermarket.)
However, one advantage of our house is that its barred and mirrored windows act as a perch for birds who can’t tell that I’m snapping them from just a couple of feet away.
Black-necked weavers are regular visitors
Still, I was going to have to leave the sofa if I wanted to rack up some better sightings.
Before I’d even arrived at Tacugama, a weird looking fowl wandered in front of my car. I’m still trying to confirm whether it was a rare white-necked picathartes which, if so, was a quite a spot. Admit it, you’re excited.
Then, on climbing out of the car, I instinctively ducked at the sound of a helicopter flying overhead.
The noise, it turned out, was the wingbeat of the yellow-casqued hornbill. Birding rules dictate that you don’t have to clap eyes on a species to count it as “seen”, provided you identify its song. I’m not sure whether flight noise counts but I’ve stuck it on my list all the same.
Willie, our guide, helped us notch up more than 25 species – about 25 more than I’d have successfully identified on my own.
Laughing doves and a grey woodpecker
The thing is, if you see a bird with a finchy beak in England, you can head to the finches section of the Collins guide and find what you’re looking at. Here, I’ve no idea whether to start with pratincoles, pittas or puffbacks.
The species I saw were impressive, rather than spectacular. They included the Western Nicator, with its unusual metallic sheen, a lovely white-throated bee-eater and the distinctive palm nut vulture. Although I missed the Great Blue Turaco, which really is a bonkers-looking thing, hearing its monkey-like call echo around the valley was still a treat.
Mostly it was just nice to be out in the mountains, enjoying cooler air. The sanctuary – set up in 1995 to house unwanted pet chimps – is in a beautifully peaceful rainforest location.
The outing wasn’t without its uncomfortable moments, including fending off an onslaught by biting ants.
And on one spooky instance, I heard a heavy snorting sound from behind a bush.
It stirred a memory from my Bradt’s guidebook, which mentions how 31 chimps escaped in 2006 and killed a taxi driver who stumbled into their midst.
Could I have heard the hungry panting of missing alpha male Bruno?