Another visitor, another excuse to explore further afield.
Rather than a relaxing tour of the Western Peninsular beaches, my old uni mate Jody fancied climbing a mountain.
Not just any mountain. At 1,948m Bintumani is the highest peak between Cameroon and Morocco. And it’s a long way from anywhere sizeable enough to be called a town.
Still, enough people had spoken with misty-eyed fondness of their experience to convince me it was a good idea.
Filled with excitement and not a little trepidation, we picked up mate-of-a-mate Joe and headed for the hills of Kabala.
It’s a neat town with a picturesque location in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province. Despite several circuits, and a possible world record for U-turns per hour, we were unable to find a guest house.
Joe had a contact for the local paramount chief, a position created by the British to interlink colonial administration with traditional tribal structures, and we figured he’d know a place to stay.
While these chiefs are elected, the role is restricted to members of clans with ancestral claims to the title.
Whatever his entitlement, the chief wasn’t in. And, it turned out, he wasn’t even the right chief. We wanted the other paramount chief, for the district up the road.
An adviser was, however, able to help us find Sengbeh guesthouse by allowing a small boy into a car to direct three strange men.
I thought the Le60,000 (£7) room with firm bed and attractive traditional Gara tie-dye sheets was bliss. Jody described it as “the worst hotel I’ve ever had misfortune to set foot in”.
Whatever, its position overlooking the town’s stadium meant free entertainment in the form of a Blues v Reds football match (0-0, frustration for the Blues – just like home).
After a dinner of rice with thin pepper sauce at a bar where CNN’s US election coverage competed with thumping Afrobeats at ear-splitting volume, we jumped bikes back home.
Day One: Kabala to Sinekoro
Waking early and full of purpose – or in Jody’s case irritation at a noisy 5am Call to Prayer – we recruited a local man to lead us to the home of Chief Dr Alie Balansama Marah III.
We found him sitting on his verandah, overlooking a beautifully kempt square with floral displays and a view of lush hills.
Not that we knew who the chief was until a thin man draped in a baggy T-shirt and wearing football shorts stood to shake hands (with a title like Paramount Chief, there’s no need to dress to impress).
Only then did we notice the wooden throne – carved with the Queen’s initials – that was presented to chiefs on independence in 1961.
At this point Jody and I, as the expedition’s elders, did the obvious thing and prodded forward 22-year-old Joe to do the talking. Chief Marah had an easy manner, however, and he and Jody were soon discussing the highlights of his previous visit to Reading.
He agreed to arrange motorbikes (4x4s being deemed too expensive and impractical) and sent us on our way, cringing at the oft-cracked joke: “Anything for our colonial masters.”
Jody and I were apprehensive about bikes. It didn’t help when the riders insisted on laying our rucksacks over the handlebars, prompting much angst about straps getting tangled in brakes/wheels.
However, we soon relaxed as we whizzed eastward down narrow tracks, returning the enthusiastic waves of villagers and attempting to doff hats at passing ladies.
In the early stages, the gravel track was surprisingly free of the country’s infamous bone-rattling “gallops”. Bordered by lush vegetation, it felt like a Sustrans cycle track back home.
Hurtling down steep slopes to build enough momentum to help the little TVS engine up the opposite climb proved exhilarating – like Alton Towers without the queues.
Only after an hour or so did the full effects of the rainy season become apparent. Tyre ruts in the clay were so deep our riders had to “walk” the bikes across them; no easy task while wearing the sort of leather slip-ons I last saw on my Uncle Ron in the mid-80s.
Other areas remained swamped, particularly around broken water pipes, leaving the bikes slithering along planks laid across the sludge.
After two and a half hours, we reached a river that had washed the road away. Bidding our riders farewell, we crossed a none-too-sturdy log bridge to begin what we’d read was a 90-minute walk to Sinekoro.
After just 20 minutes, however, we could go no further. We met the Seli River, flowing too fast, high and wide to ford.
An exploratory poke around for a footbridge yielded no joy and we turned back, resigned never to even reach Bintumani let alone climb it.
We trudged back to the village of Momoria Badela, where salvation came in the unlikely form of a man wearing a Monster Energy/Lloyds No 1 Bar T-shirt.
Any feelings of relief at having dodged a mountain climbing trip were swallowed as Foray Conteh agreed to escort us across the river via a magnificent traditional “hammock bridge”.
Long, straight sections of vine were stretched taught across the river, bound together by reeds and tied to overhanging branches to create a surprisingly stable structure.
I won’t say I wasn’t nervous as I first felt it sway underfoot but the bridge – maintained twice annually – was much sturdier than it looked. It was preferable to the slippery logs and stepping stones elsewhere that would give my right foot a soaking as I lost balance.
A fascinating trail followed, mostly between tall grass but occasionally through woods and up hills, while butterflies in a staggering array of colours kept us company.
Plenty of birdlife kept me interested, with pin-tailed whydahs flouncing all around. These were less attractive to one woman standing atop a rock, screeching like a banshee and slinging stones into a field of rice.
This primitive mode of scaring birds would keep her busy for at least another week until harvest, we were told.
Foray also had little time for my birding, pressing us to pick up the pace. For once, the trusty Bradt guide had let us down. Rather than 90 minutes, we would hike 10 long miles under rucksacks weighed down by water supplies to reach Sinekoro.
Before then, we had to negotiate passage through Foray’s village of Banda Karafia. He led us to the chief’s house and translated from the local Kuranko tongue, as the village’s entire population of children – and no shortage of adults – lined up to listen.
The chief’s representative – white beard and traditional striped suit giving him a suitably chiefly look – demanded Le300,000 for passage, twice what we’d expected.
Only when we presented soap, sugar and tea – apparently the done thing – did he relent and halve the fee. He passed us a visitors’ book so sparsely filled that Joe and I easily found our mate Ed’s note from three years ago.
Foray led us back into the bush under darkening skies and pointed us towards Sinekoro, before accepting a tip and turning back.
We had three miles to go, and it was starting to rain. The hard, undulating ground soon became slippy and it wasn’t long before I suffered the indignity of landing on my backside.
We pressed on to beat nightfall and, just as that jelly-legged disorientation you get at mile 23 of marathons set in, we saw the glint of Sinekoro’s tin roofs.
A young man called Bockarie led us to the chief but, perhaps in recognition of our state, negotiations on guides and porters were left to morning.
We were allowed to set up camp in the school and villagers brought hot water to prepare the first of many dehydrated meals that Jody had brought from the Surbiton branches of Sainsbury’s and Poundland.
Joe and I certainly weren’t cold sharing our tiny tent but sleep didn’t come easily on the hard, stony ground of a half-built classroom.
Worse, the belt of my ageing backpack had rubbed sores into my sides, my chafed thighs were stinging and my right foot was blistered from its soaking.
And we hadn’t even set foot on the mountain yet.
Day Two: Sinekoro to Camp Two
After breakfasting on porridge from empty noodle pots, I stripped to bathe my sore bits within a wicker shelter and we packed up to see the chief.
Our negotiation strategy was hopeless. Joe, on a tight budget, routinely haggles like a local, while Jody was keen to single-handedly refloat the Sierra Leonean economy with his holiday spends.
I sat in the middle feeling awkward and fretting that we might not have enough cash to get us up the mountain.
The guides’ initial demands were 10 times our expectations. Ours would be the first expedition up the mountain since the rains, they explained, so both experience and extra effort were required.
We eventually agreed a fee of around half the first offer. Even then, there was momentary panic when I thought we’d not be able to honour the commitment, not having taken into account the chief’s “tax” that’s said to fund community development.
We managed to pool just enough notes and the hired hands disappeared to prepare, leaving us novelties to satisfy the local kids’ demands of “snap me, snap me”.
Jody had them swaying to the tinny strains of the Black Beauty theme played via his mobile phone (they weren’t so keen on the ‘Allo, ‘Allo music), while I impressed the chief by showing him “over yanda” up close through my binoculars.
It wasn’t long before we followed a man carrying a rifle and cutlass, and wearing purple football boots, into a forest and wondered just what we were letting ourselves in for.
The early stages were undertaken at a fair pace, albeit with stoppages to allow the porters to slug palm wine and smoke pungent cigarettes.
I’d never tasted the greasy-looking white poyo before but, freshly tapped from the palm, it was delicious. Slightly bitter, with a coconut milk texture, it certainly added to the giddy sense of adventure.
Keen to avoid sunstroke, Jody and I had chosen two particularly feminine hats for our expedition – his made him look like a bearded Miss Marple – and the impression of two middle-aged ladies on tour was bolstered when our porters carried us piggy-back across a river.
No shame in that, so far as I was concerned, I just wanted to stop my feet from blistering further.
An hour later, however, I was in trouble. As we scrambled up the 50%+ gradient of Camp One Hill, I was worryingly short of breath and clinging to any branch I could find for a hand-hold.
My friends were faring far better. Youthful Joe was showing no signs of fatigue while Jody, despite his Pingu-esque walk, has the agility and stamina of a mountain goat.
Already lagging behind, I called the party to a halt to catch my breath while all-too-familiar feelings of self-doubt overcame me. I’m well used to this. It happens at the 20% stage of any race I take part in.
But while I know I can handle a flat 5k, or even a hilly 15k cross-country, I just couldn’t see how I’d get up this mountain.
Only by interspersing a minute’s breather into every short burst of climb did I make it to Camp One, where I collapsed into a powernap. How was I going to manage the hundreds of metres of climb still to go?
Thankfully, the gradient became kinder and though Camp Two hill was longer it proved slower going.
The guides frequently had to hack through the rainforest and our “director” was notching trees to mark his route as we climbed.
The calls of primates mingled with birdsong overhead, while the occasional brilliant red leaf interrupted the brown and green of our forest surrounds. But I took in little, rarely lifting my eyes from the ground and trying desperately not to stumble on hidden roots.
My addled brain noticed only that the scent of the forest changed as we threaded through different foliage.
After a few more hours, and having climbed some 1,000m in total, we emerged onto a rocky plateau bristling with elephant grass.
While the clear air and mountain views proved refreshing, the terrain offered little relief. It sent us stumbling over hidden rocks en route to our base for the night, the riverside camp of a US researcher who’d spent two years studying the mountain.
Cool water worked wonders on my aching feet, now with ruptured blister, and Jody and I mustered the energy to follow the river to where it tumbled over a cliff.
I couldn’t face delving into the forest to spot the birds making an impressive cacophany and instead consulted my “bible” to identify those I’d already seen.
This book of “condeh”, in Kuranko, caused great interest among our guides, who looked at it like a menu, talking me through which ones they’d trapped and eaten.
The rest of the night was spent restocking our empty bodies with a three-course meal of rice, pasta and noodles of varying (poor) quality.
We shared our bounty with the sceptical guides and they repaid the favour by offering us their simple rice, stirred with a cutlass, which tasted fantastic despite being seasoned only with salt and pepper.
As I lay back onto the stinking rolled-up shirt and trousers that doubled as my pillow, I let the moon shine like a spotlight through the tent’s top vent and considered that maybe this mountain lark wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Day Three: Camp Two – Summit – Sinekoro
We started the remaining 700m climb early, with half a mind to the 1,700m descent that would be required before nightfall.
After stumbling across the plateau and a short wooded climb, we got first sight of our goal.
Bintumani loomed large, very large, out of the haze. And its peak – a lump of rock with apparently sheer sides – looked completely unconquerable to those without ropes and crampons.
Our guides reassured us, however, and we pressed on. The next two hours were alternately enjoyable and infuriating.
Panoramic views combined with the gentle breeze rustling the tall grass to make for an exhilarating experience as we crossed relatively flat rock.
In other areas, however, we lost sight of our guides and stumbled on unseen tufts and rocks.
After regrouping, we paused to admire a family of baboons watching us from a distance, and caught a glimpse of a lone buffalo which regarded us warily before wandering away over a hill.
Our spirits rose as we neared the peak. The going was much easier than the previous day, with the steeper sections feeling as though steps had been sculpted in rock and grass.
The final climb involved grappling for hand-holds on the grass. It took no time to cover the sharp last 50m or so and there we were; the highest people in West Africa (more or less).
The haze limited visibility to the surrounding mountains but we could still make out the tin roofs of villages glinting in the sunlight across the valleys.
After adding the obligatory rock to the cairn, and taking various photos, it was time for a lie down. I watched a couple of falcons (fox kestrels, I think) patrol the mountaintop, as swallows and swifts zoomed overhead.
It was beautiful but I didn’t much feel like celebrating; it was a long way down.
After 30 minutes or so, we set off down again, shuffling on our bums down the steepest sections.
In others I grabbed the elephant grass for a hold as my aching feet – both with sores at toe and heel at this stage – struggled for grip. The benign territory of the morning seemed much harsher on the way down, and I was getting frustrated at losing sight of the guides.
We also ran short on water until we could get back to a stream closer to our camp. Tempers frayed as it took longer than expected to arrive.
We hadn’t realised quite how hungry we were, and three-minute noodles were devoured in less time than they took to cook, before we set off back through the forest for Sinekoro.
While I was in pain and moving more slowly than the others, my mind fared better than the previous day. I felt in a sort of trance but was still conscious of the cumbersome movements of my hefty frame around branches.
With my hat and blouse-like mosquito-repellent shirt, I imagined myself as bumbling Hyacinth Bucket, from Keeping Up Appearances.
Fittingly around this point, a thorny branch whipped the hat clean off my head and held it in mid-air like some terrible slapstick gag from the show.
We reached the bottom before dusk but any elation proved short-lived. It was the longest walk back to the village. I had no recollection of crossing so many streams and – as the sky darkened and we relied on torchlight – the porters had to hold my hand over the slippery log bridges.
It was pitch black by the time we made it back to Sinekoro. A drum beat seemed to herald our arrival; in reality, the sound of women threshing rice by stamping enormous logs into wooden bowls.
The sense of relief at seeing these simple homes, many with mud walls and thatched roofs, was enormous: Civilisation at last.
By this stage I was like a zombie and couldn’t face speaking to the locals who had gathered to welcome us. I lay on the school verandah, head on backpack, and closed my eyes.
The oddest thing perked me up; I heard Jody telling someone: “I’m not a soldier, no.” The locals had apparently heard of my mild-mannered mate’s stamina on the mountain and assumed he was one of the fearless Brits who ended the civil war in 2001.
Still chuckling, I took some hot water from the fire into the shower room, stripped and bathed my aching joints. It was heavenly.
Bockarie had promised us a meal and when it came it was about the nicest food I’ve eaten in Sierra Leone. Fat freshwater fish were served with the most delicious chili pepper, peanut and palm oil sauce I’ve ever eaten – and that’s not just the fatigue talking.
We ate it from an enormous plate of rice around the fire before heading to bed feeling like our bodies were already in some way repaired.
Day Four: Sinekoro to Kabala
We had one thing on our minds as we packed up – to lighten the load we had to carry as much as possible.
So it was that Jody and I made gifts of our tents to our guides, the porters each got a water bottle and a man who’s building a community guesthouse was given a hammock.
Bockarie had invited us to his mother’s house for breakfast, and we were fed more delicious river fish with pepper and nut sauce, this time with a light stock instead of the palm oil.
Our walking party joined us and we ate from the same plate, trying and failing to match our fellow diners’ skill at picking flesh from the bones.
This meant a late departure as we set off on the leg of the journey I’d been dreading since day one, and the sun was already making its presence felt.
Despite that, we passed through Banda Karafia relatively quickly – giving a quick nod to the chief and walking once more with Foray for a short distance. We made good ground until midday, when it turned into a long, hot trudge.
The experience was lightened by occasional meetings with villagers who’d exchange a friendly word before going about their work. At one stage we even met a travelling dance troupe, carrying not only a laptop and speakers but a generator and the petrol needed to power it for an event in a nearby village that night.
We kept hearing running water and expecting the Seli River around every next turn but the teasing track would turn away. My feet were so sore by this stage that I was lagging behind, particularly struggling downhill, and Jody was helping me across small streams.
However, once we re-crossed the hammock bridge, we knew Momoria Badela would be less than half an hour away.
Infuriatingly, we can’t have been more than 10 minutes out when we came a-cropper. Joe and Jody had crossed a river by a fairly wide and sturdy bridge.
But my confidence was as shot as the soles of my feet. I just wasn’t convinced I could lift my boots over the reeds tying the logs together. I took to my hands and knees for safety, only to see Jody’s last remaining flask tumble from a side pocket and into the river.
He dashed back to retrieve it from the water, and promptly fell in up to his waist.
Jody had rescued a £10 flask at the cost of soaking his smartphone and passport.
While he cursed his stupidity, I blamed myself. Joe, meanwhile, was suffering heatstroke and desperate to eat.
So trudging into Momoria Badela to find not a single motorbike available didn’t improve our mood. We sat in the shade, scowling.
It didn’t take long to sort things out. The village teacher, who had good English, arranged for one man to take Joe to the next town and send back two more bikes to get us.
Jody and I were left to entertain the village kids, who’d gathered in a semi-circle to enjoy much throwing of hats and copying our movements.
Seeing these kids up close soon put damage to a phone into context. Some wore little more than rags, while one sported a plastic water bottle top on a string around his neck as though it were a gold medallion. Despite all that, they were a happy bunch.
However, I was struck by a sore on one boy’s leg that was covered in flies.
He was a cocky little lad and I couldn’t bear the thought of an easily treatable wound getting infected and putting him among the 18% of kids who don’t make it to their 5th birthday.
I desperately wanted that wound cleaned and dressed but it wasn’t my place to do it. Instead, I dug my first aid kit from my bag, removed any complicated medication, and left the saline wipes, bandages, plasters and a tube of antiseptic cream.
I passed it to the teacher and explained what I’d seen. I hope it got used properly.
When my bike arrived, the rider chose to tie my rucksack to the back. Leaning on it gave the odd sensation of travelling at 35mph in an armchair; or, more accurately given the driver’s proximity, riding in an armchair with someone in my lap.
He was a knowledgeable sort and passed back local info as we travelled, explaining that the fancy mosques in the middle of two simple rural villages had been funded by the finance minister in honour of his home area.
There were a couple of glitches before we made it back to Kabala. Jody had to abandon one bike on account of it having no brakes. Meanwhile, Joe’s rider struggled to maintain speed up hills and he was forced to climb on with me, causing me briefly to be the uncomfortable meat in a three-man sandwich.
My last glimpse of real country hardship was of a mother trying to feed crying twin babies, as another small child tried to help cook on the fire and chickens wandered around their feet. I gave her a little wave for luck as we motored off into the chilly night.
We were back in Kabala soon after dark and I pulled my emergency $100 bill from my wallet (leaving tips for various villagers at Sinekoro had cleaned us out of Leones). I changed it for Leones in a mattress shop, of all places, to cover our costs.
As Jody put it, arriving back in the small town on a Friday night – with its smoke, beeping, bike lights and general hubbub – felt like landing in Times Square after a week in the country.
We made our way back to the bar we’d visited previously for a proper celebration.
Rarely will Salone-brewed Guinness Foreign Extra have tasted so good as we toasted a journey complete
De wok dohn dohn.
Photos: Jody Ketteringham
Travelling to Bintumani, via Sinekoro, might get easier in the coming years. A project is under way to build a permanent road bridge at Momoria Badela.
Meanwhile, villagers in Sinekoro are constructing a guest house (pictured) for climbers.
Those interested in climbing might Bintumani might appreciate the help and good English of Bockarie Koroma (+232) 76776914/77510716