As we glided silently over the barely rippling waters of the River Moa, listening to the myriad exotic birdcalls, I finally understood.
This was why Tiwai Island is hailed as the jewel in the crown of Sierra Leone’s natural splendour, and by many as the country’s number one destination full-stop.
A landscape straight out of Jurassic Park – of exotic palms, 200-foot kapok trees and giant bamboo plants – was mirrored with the fading sun on the water.
And with a solitary fisherman in a dugout canoe for company, my sexagenarian father-in-law and I felt like little boy explorers on a storybook adventure.
Well, of course, behind us our poor guide Alusine was puffing and panting as he punted and paddled our bulk along the river. But the feeling of isolation made for a special couple of hours.
Our welcome to the island had been nothing like so serene, being marked by a blazing row.
Arriving a day later than planned had sent the staff into disarray. After a long and tough drive, we really just wanted to relax with a beer.
But as we waited to be shown the facilities, the boss man – from the Environmental Foundation for Africa – entered into an almighty shouting match with the site steward, a local villager.
Not content with this embarrassing show, he then sat down and continued his bawling at us.
Only when I started yelling back did he remember himself but – despite his apologies – it was going to take us a little while to appreciate the island’s famous tranquility.
It didn’t help my father-in-law’s mood that the Star Beer – when it eventually arrived – was warm, though I did point out the thrum of a generator would spoil the atmosphere somewhat.
Still, he’s well used to roughing it, as proven by his hapless backpacking with us through Patagonia. (He’d want to be, given we had neither water nor grid power when he first arrived. Cold bucket showers only.)
That trip got him well used to my mood swings, silent standoffs with the missus and – memorably – our accidentally swapping briefs. But this time we’d headed off without The One With The Common Sense.
We get on well thanks to a shared interest in birds and beer. With his regulation twitcher beard, floppy hat and stature, he appears a more jovial version of Britain’s most famous birder; a sort of Drinking Man’s Bill Oddie.
And it was birds we were chasing as we migrated 200 miles south-east from Freetown. We’d warmed up for the trip nicely thanks to a bloke called David, who works for the EU, who’d spotted our binoculars resting on a table at Freetown’s swankiest restaurant.
David popped up everywhere over the following days; in a car behind us, cleaning out our local cashpoint as we queued, then turning up at beautiful Bureh beach where we were spending the night.
As he pitched a tent directly opposite our chalets, we pushed fears of stalker-murder to the backs of our minds and arranged a 7am birdwalk with him.
He proved a first-class birder, pointing out a tiny prinia I’d never have seen, let alone identified, and even coaxing a tinkerbird towards him by mimicking its song.
We did okay too. The Drinking Man’s Bill Oddie spied a couple of magnificent ospreys rounding the mountains, while I noticed three spectacular violet-backed starlings.
So we were fired up with enthusiasm by the time we took a last dip in the sea and headed inland, leaving the One With The Common Sense to take the Flump back to Freetown and the working week.
It was nearly 4pm by the time we hit Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, and a very late lunch meant it’d be a race against time to get to Tiwai before dark.
It didn’t help that I accidentally motored through the recommended turnoff and ended up 10 miles the other side.
Having doubled back, we quickly got lost on a rough country road and found ourselves staring at the sort of flooding that looked capable of submerging the car.
Local kids assured us it wasn’t too deep and we ploughed through with breath held. We made it, which was all well and good until we hit the kind of terrain to push my two-wheel drive RAV4 to the limit.
Could this really be the right road?
Well, no, as it turned out. We’d been given a bum steer and ended up back on the same highway as before. Deciding to call it a night, we rolled in to the nearby city of Kenema.
After trying the powerful local Guinness – and declaring it undrinkable – The (Non) Drinking Man’s Bill Oddie decided an evening stroll would clear our heads.
At this point the One With The Common Sense’s command of “just don’t let him fall over” began echoing around my brain. My father-in-law is not known for being fleet of foot. But then I’m no stranger to a spectacular tumble either.
So there was dubious wisdom in my leading a torchlit wander around a city renowned for its awful roads (allegedly because it’s a stronghold of the government’s opposition).
You couldn’t say there were potholes, as such, because no part of the dirt-and-rock road surface was level. And we still had to negotiate the open drains and motorbikes without lights.
Despite all that, we made it back in one piece. And we only got lost up a back street once.
We were back on the road early next day, with a fresh determination and better directions from Blama junction.
It was slow going along the tree-lined red gravel thanks to the array of bee-eaters, coucals and impressive African harrier hawks that had us stopping to gawp every mile or so.
We had less success identifying villages, with only charity signboards offering clues as to locations. And the road got less and less travelled, becoming little more than a rutted track between villages as we entered the third hour of driving.
We’d been assured our car would get us there, but I had to pick the lesser of numerous evil paths over chassis-chafing terrain.
“Yah, it’s good,” urged the locals, as I sought advice while staring down a “bridge” constructed from a couple of sawn trees at straddling width.
And so it proved.
But not without a toll on my nerves, which became increasingly frayed as our supposed 110-minute drive stretched to four hours.
So we were a little dazed when parking up in the village of Kambamba, before being punted over to Tiwai on a small canoe.
Still, it’s amazing how restorative a good feed can be, particularly when it’s as tasty as the smoked river fish with a light chilli and peanut sauce that we were presented with; Salonean country cooking at its best.
Freshly enthused, we plunged into the jungle behind our machete-wielding guide Momoh. Before long, he’d left the path and was hacking through the trees in search of monkeys – and with remarkable success.
There can’t be many more joyful sights than seeing primates fling themselves across gaps between trees, crashing into the foliage opposite. And watching the Diana, Campbell’s and endangered red colobus monkeys was a thrill.
We weren’t having so much luck on the bird front, given there are 135 different species of on the rainforest island. However, it’s never easy to see much through the dense woodland.
And, sadly, Momoh’s expertise didn’t quite match David’s. When asked about a shrill jungle call, he might reply. “It’s a bird.” As to what kind: “A little bird.”
Big birds, notably hornbills, were more his thing. And he led us to areas where spectacular yellow-casqued hornbills roosted; their enormous wings beating the air with the whoomp of a helicopter’s rotor blades.
A dinner of the best jollof rice I’ve had yet was followed by a game of cards under a dim solar light in the camp’s communal shelter. Tiwai’s basic facilities had taken a battering by storms a year earlier and the place still looked a bit decrepit.
I had no complaints about the comfort in the tents, however. Pitched on concrete platforms to raise them above the forest floor, they are stuffed with thick double mattresses that ensured a decent night’s sleep.
It was a joy to listen to the orchestra of crickets, frogs, owls and various unidentified creatures in the complete darkness outside.
Well, that’s when I could hear it over the thunderous snores from next door, where the Drinking Man’s Bill Oddie was in full flow. I’m accustomed to the racket but it might just have sent the camp staff racing for cutlasses, fearing the island’s alpha chimp had run amok.
Rising early again, we hit the trails with Momoh again. And while we had little luck on the bird front, it was still a pleasure to take in the sounds and smells of the jungle as we clambered over fallen trees and through cutlass-carved jungle tunnels.
I spent much of the day lazing in a riverside hammock, or gazing through binoculars at birds hopping around the camp until it was time for our memorable riverboat ride.
Winged highlights included a handsome white-headed lapwing, a beautiful white-throated blue swallow and – finally, for me – a little malachite kingfisher. I also sent a hadada ibis squawking in alarm with an untimely flash of my camera.
We hadn’t seen quite so many birds as we’d hoped, let alone the any of the island’s elusive pygmy hippos, but we’d experienced the magic we’d heard all about.
What’s more, The Drinking Man’s Bill Oddie hadn’t fallen over once, despite the numerous hidden roots, forest obstacles and a trip in a very shallow canoe.
At least that was true until we turned in from the night and he contrived to miss the step from the camp platform, perform the sort of half-twist that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Olympic diving competition and roll hedgehog-like onto his back.
It was a surprisingly graceful landing.
There was a final treat in store for him as we left Tiwai to collect the car. He was surrounded by local children fascinated by this white man, stroking his arm and urging him to show them the photos he was snapping, like a celebrity in a Comic Relief film.
We avoided the worst of the roads on the way back, with flooding now cleared from a highway that’s passable while under construction.
This route was much easier on both car and driver but wasn’t without its own hazards, as I found to my cost.
As I was overtaking a spluttering and overloaded poda-poda taxi-bus, I failed to spot a speed bump on the way into a village and hit it with force.
Immediately, the exhaust was roaring in complaint every time I so much as tickled the accelerator. I matched the racket with howls of frustration and annoyance at myself, turning the air blue around the driver’s seat.
We were going to need help.
And my mood wasn’t improved any when I was hoiked out of the car by an immigration officer who was inspecting my passport at a police checkpoint.
“Oooh, my goodness,” he said, as he leafed through its pages from a bench in the shade of the police house. “You were supposed to leave the country in July.”
I may not have been at my most polite.
Several minutes of explaining why I wasn’t supposed to leave in July fell on deaf ears, until I took back the passport and read the line stating that as a “dependent” I was entitled to remain until May 2017.
“Ooooh, my goodness,” he repeated, leafing again through the pages. It might be a stock line to put the wind up people in a bid to part them from their cash but, in this case, I think he just realised his chance of a bribe had gone.
I returned to the car to discover The Drinking Man’s Bill Oddie had faced a more unusual line of questioning from a policewoman who demanded he give her a bible; just her luck to find a car carrying a pair of non-believers.
The checkpoint rope dropped and we limped onward, my mood only slightly improved by our little victory over officialdom.
Thankfully, Bo wasn’t too far away. We quickly sought salvation at Sandy’s garage where the mechanic was quickly able to diagnose – and replace – a blown gasket for a tenner, and send us away back to Freetown.
From then on, it was back to more conventional holiday activities for The Drinking Man’s Bill Oddie.
We packed a reasonable amount in to his short stay; a city-centre tour, drinks overlooking Man Of War bay (where an osprey obligingly yanked a fish from the water), sunset dining at Lumley Beach and having the stunning River Number Two Beach to ourselves on a weekday.
But I suspect the connection with Sierra Leone’s people and natural wonders will linger longest in his memory.
In visiting the local bar with the One With the Common Sense, driving through remote bush and interacting with villagers as wide-eyed as he was, he experienced the real Africa.
Photos: Michael Burton