It never really feels like Christmas in a hot climate.
But you could be forgiven for thinking you’re walking on snow when you feel the white sands of Tokeh beach crunch underfoot.
And with the Harmattan winds whipping up a haze of Saharan dust to shroud the horizon, it did make for a white Christmas of sorts.
Even so, in 28C heat, we were never going to experience the usual festive feelings despite a pretty good attempt at a Turkey dinner by the Tokeh Sands resort.
The hotel and beach bungalow complex is such a haven of tranquility that I can’t believe we waited until our last weekend in the country to visit. The venue is beautifully designed, with plenty of space around a central accommodation and restaurant block, fronted by hammocks and sunbeds.
The warm water is as beautiful as the sand and its backdrop of tropical trees, while a cooling breeze meant Christmas – spent with our Icelandic friends and their three lovely children – provided much-needed relaxation at a hectic time.
We were joined for Christmas lunch by some of our other expat parent friends. Meanwhile, in whisky (or rum) and fiery home-made ginger beer, I found my new favourite festive drink (and one that would work a treat on a frosty night).
It made for a really nice day, albeit one tinged with sadness at having to say goodbye.
It’s been a month of fond farewells. We hosted our last “Thursday Club” for expat parents, when a Christmas pudding sent over by the in-laws went down a treat. It tastes so much better when you haven’t eaten your bodyweight in turkey beforehand.
But one of our saddest farewells was to Flumpo’s nursery, which has been a lovely environment for her – full of cuddles and kisses that probably aren’t allowed back home – and it’s one that she’s thrived in.
What’s particularly impressive is the lengths to which they’ve gone to put on elaborate events. Sports day was hilarious, and great fun.
– Justice was done after Flumpo’s blatant false start in the Find Your Shoes race when it emerged her pair had been accidentally removed from the pile
Their Christmas performance, however, was truly painful. It might not have been so bad had the cast not been mic’d up to broadcast their screeching to the entire neighbourhood. Thankfully the Flump refused to perform, sparing us the amplification of her tuneless warble.
We had another last supper with The One With the Common Sense’s colleagues, sharing a giant plate of cassava leaf stew in the Sierra Leonean fashion.
They had bought us farewell gifts, including matching traditional “country cloth” outfits, and – being rather taken with its chiefly look – I thought I’d wear mine to the lunchtime meal in the office.
I was thinking it odd that no-one remarked on my attire until one of them drew The One With the Common Sense aside to point out that I was wearing her outfit. I was walking round in the equivalent of a dress, which isn’t really the done thing in Freetown.
In our final few days, I squeezed in one final run along Lumley Beach and watched Everton lose to Liverpool one more time with my Everton Sierra Leone mates.
– Making an honorary Ealing Eagle of my running buddy, Thomas, and receiving an Everton Sierra Leone training top from club founder, Amjata
It was all part of a whirlwind exit to the country which in many ways mirrored our first few weeks. When once we fretted about buying a car and generator, now we were stressing about selling the sodding things.
I was never too worried about the car. It was a good motor and we’d looked after it well. Typically, however, it conked out on the afternoon I was supposed to be showing it to two prospective buyers.
Cue frantic calls to our mechanic, who sent his best lad to fix what turned out to be a minor electrical problem, and all was completed with a minimum of fuss. I might have got a little emotional and given the car a sly cuddle as I dropped it off.
The generator – that physical embodiment of everything that’s been a massive pain in the hole to us in Sierra Leone – has proven a different story, however.
It remains unsold. We’re told we have a buyer (albeit one paying a lot less than our landlord promised us before he welched) but I’ll not believe it until the money drops into our account.
This process hasn’t been helped by various niggling illnesses. The cause of my tummy troubles – which had left me feeling nauseous and lacking appetite for a month – was identified as the same type of intestinal worm poor Flumpo had a few months back.
Meanwhile, she and The One With the Common Sense have done the African thing and managed to catch colds in 30C heat. Folks blame those pesky Harmattan winds.
Another effect of them has been to make Freetown once more resemble the place we arrived in. The rains have finally ceased, leading to a welcome drop in humidity, while the roads, plants and cars have taken on the dusty brown appearance I found so unattractive during my first days here.
Thanks to its gradients the city retains the power to surprise, however, as I found when driving down a hill to see the rusting hulk of a ship floating seemingly at eye-level before me. New hotels, bars and restaurants keep popping up, an indication of some optimism amid the general gloom of austere times.
We spent the last hours in our house desperately trying to get rid of stuff, having underestimated just how much we had.
Poor Flumpo lost all but her newest toys to a grateful children’s hospital, our utensils went to our Icelandic friends, while our clothes were split between the Dom Bosco Fambul project which is currently housing people left homeless by a fire, and our watchmen.
Indeed, Ibrahim and Abdullah did pretty well out of our chaotic departure, sharing between themselves the belongings we had neither use for nor room to pack.
Theirs was perhaps the saddest farewell. We know how important jobs are to those in their 20s, and how difficult new ones will be to come by. We’ve tried to help them out so that they’re not short in the coming months, and left them with justifiably glowing references.
Ibrahim, father of a six-month-old boy, is on the verge of becoming a qualified house electrician but needs to resit one high school practical exam. Abdullah wants to further his IT skills. Hopefully both will be able to advance themselves before having to take on fresh work.
Despite all the farewells, it was a surreal experience to close the door one last time and drive out of the gate with a final wave to Ibrahim. Practicalities mean goodbyes seldom prove as emotional as they feel they might beforehand.
Fittingly, there was still time for a last complication or two.
I indulged in a rare moment of fatherly pride on board the Sea Coach to the airport, as the Flump charmed the folks sitting opposite by chatting brightly.
We all know what pride precedes but it was probably The One With the Common Sense commenting that the journey had “gone very smoothly” that tempted fate too strongly. We arrived at the airport to find luggage trolleys lined up like trucks on the M20 during Operation Stack.
Rumours were swirling that the flight was cancelled but we took our place in line and waited for information.
Typically, there were no clear announcements. But one bloke near us got wind that we were to be bussed to a hotel and began heading through the door. I was trying to extricate a backpack strap from under a wheel and so couldn’t move, yet he started nudging my trolley out of the way.
He was playing the role of polite commuter, telling us to “mind the little one”, while actually barging the trolley into the Flump. For some reason, he took exception to my thumping him on the back and saying “you look after yourself, mate”.
What followed is as hazy as a Harmattan skyline, except to say that all our bags went tumbling from my trolley and he declared he’d have to “slap my face” if I didn’t stop accusing him of pushing around little girls.
I’d like to say I delivered a withering and witty retort but I’m fairly certain I just straightened my back and offered something vaguely combative in return, until the inevitable happened and a sensible woman intervened to calm things. (Not The One With the Common Sense; she’s more likely to provoke the red mist than clear it.)
So as he marched past the old ladies to the front of the bus queue, I reloaded our luggage and ended up near the back. We arrived at the hotel to find a melee as an entire flight of passengers shouted at some harassed check-in staff at close range.
I could understand their frustration. The procedure seemed unnecessarily complicated for something that must happen fairly frequently but the yelling didn’t speed things up. (One receptionist told me people were usually “more civilised”).
I did the English thing and waited patiently at the back, feeling superior, while the missus took the Flump for a sleep on a couch. The reward for this approach was getting to wait until last. But at least when they saw the Flump they upgraded us to a nicer room.
It allowed us a few hours’ sleep but the delay meant we’d miss our connection in Casablanca, and spend another night in a hotel (courtesy of Royal Air Maroc).
It was, perhaps, a fitting end to an African adventure that’s been both a whole lot of fun, and anything but straightforward.
I still can’t quite believe it’s over.