Tiwai Island is home to the densest population of primates in the world. Red-tailed/black and white colobus monkeys, chimpanzees, and spider monkeys abound. I was looking forward to a respite from the traffic heavy city to a totally natural environment that we had to get to by boat.
The drive, as is the case with any overland travel in Africa, was arduous. For those of you unfamiliar with overland truck travel – we travel in a 4×4 overland truck that can accommodate up to 24 passengers and crew. Everything we need to camp in the bush is on the truck: tents, stoves, utensils, gas, water jerry-cans, a fridge, plus we collect firewood as we go. The passengers are divided up into group for truck jobs such as sweeping out the truck at the end of a long drive day; and we have cook groups made up of 4 persons who rotate to prepare meals on the road for the rest of the group. Cook groups plan and organize shopping in local markets for gathering supplies for dinners, breakfasts and lunch; though sometimes we don’t get included meals which we would then purchase locally at restaurants – when we can find them. West Africa, especially Guinea and rural Sierra Leone – see very few tourists. Many villagers and especially children have never seen white people before. As such, we are often greeted with the kind of enthusiasm that is reserved for celebrities. Everyone waves at the truck – sometimes a local woman will start dancing with excitement and start shrieking with euphoria and spontaneous eruptions of applause are not uncommon. It leaves one feeling both honored to be visiting such a remote location as well as providing a sense of privilege due to the lack of melanin in our skin that is quite uncomfortable to say the least.
About half of the nights on the trip are spent camping in tents, and the other half is spent in local guesthouses/hotels which have ranged in quality from very basic to downright worse than camping. In Guinea, for example, all of the hotels carry a double bed only – and since we all agreed to “share” – the women and the men are assigned a roommate and one is “forced” to make do sharing a bed or choosing the floor if that is too unsavory an experience. This requirement has set off a number of problems within the group and tensions have surfaced resulting from fractions between certain members of the group not liking other members enough to sit next to them for a 10 hour long, hot, dusty truck journey – let alone a shared bed at night without so much as a fan for comfort.
Having said that, vast majority just accept it or choose to upgrade to their own room.
Roads in this part of the world are notoriously bad and the further back in the truck one sits, the more one feels the impact – quite literally – of the bumps and potholes encountered along the way. On bad road days, one really can’t nap or read a book – and so many hours are spent watching the countryside rolling by or engaging your fellow passengers in conversation. Sometimes, conflicting desires between silent contemplation and conversation come to a head and a compromise is reluctantly found. It can be quite a tiring and physically brutal way to travel.
I knew full well about these drawbacks – but the adventure and allure of traveling somewhere that other travelers rarely go was too appealing. And so…off we headed to Tiwai Island.
We arrived a little late on schedule with the sun having already set. Armed with just our daypacks for 2 nights, we boarded small power boats and set off from a jetty to the jungle island of Tiwai. It was one of those moments when traveling where you can’t believe you’re in the middle of nowhere with the stars bright above you and nothing but nature and zero electricity awaiting you. Crossing the mighty river you feel a bit like an ancient explorer and its very romantic.
On arrival, we set up tents under structured platforms and then enjoyed a very late dinner of bony fish and coconut flavored rice. We would be enjoying a full day of structured activities and so I headed to bed at a reasonable hour.
Despite the oppressive heat of the day, I was glad for my 55 degree Fahrenheit rated sleeping bag and woken up in the night with a sense of chill in the air, I gladly crawled into my bag. The inevitable “need to pee in the night” got me up around 3am and I walked to the bathrooms by headlamp listening to the sounds of the animals around me and my snoring fellow passengers.
The following morning was Christmas Eve and we gathered at 6:45am for a nature walk. After about an hour of not seeing anything but hearing the crying calls of hornbills and monkeys, we finally saw a group of red colobus monkey effortlessly jumping from branch to branch in the canopy overhead. We saw the white crested hornbill in its impressive display of winged flight and took some pictures of the giant trees that I’d only ever seen before in Cambodia, enmeshed with the temples at Angkor Wat.
After breakfast and some free time, four of us took a boat back to the mainland to enjoy a village tour which turned out to be fascinating. Our guide explained that the 300-person village was primarily Muslim, but that they drank alcohol and were planning to celebrate Christmas. We saw their school, vegetable gardens, how they grew rice and processed it, their beds with mattresses filled with grasses and dried leaves, the community water pump, as well as meeting and greeting with many adults and even greater masses of children who constantly harangued us for attention and photos – shrieking with excitement when we showed them the taken pictures on the camera screen.
While waiting for a canoe to take us back to the island – we had a good laugh when our guide excused himself to “make a call” for the boat to come. He walked to the edge of the river and literally made a loud patterned cry, cupping his hands around his mouth. We had all assumed he was going to call someone on his cellphone but we were mistaken!
Later that afternoon, during my favorite time of day – the “magic hour” – we went out on four person canoes to explore downriver. There wasn’t much to see in terms of wildlife, but the atmosphere and cool breeze from the boat was definitely worth the $10 it cost for the two hour trip.
Definitely one of the strangest places I’ve spent Christmas Eve – we gathered around the fire after dinner and sang Christmas carols and told stories about our personal Christmas traditions. It was a fun evening – the highlight of which was listening to our 68-year old Spanish passenger Carme tell hilarious inebriated stories from her childhood when Spain was still under rule by Franco, lying to get a visa to enter the United States and refusing to serve a racist customer at her first job as a waitress in LA. She has quite the personality and is easily the most loved member of the group.
Our Canadian tour leader, Sinead, came and announced that the villagers had invited us to spend Christmas morning and lunch with them. It was an offer we could hardly refuse, despite concerns I had about any awkwardness that might result from two very different sets of people coming together to celebrate a common holiday which has widely differing expectations in terms of how it is recognized.
My fears turned out to be largely unsubstantiated and it was a delightful, if exhausting morning. We were literally besieged with snotty nosed children all clamoring over the women in our group…some of us got groped, had our hair pulled and ten children grasping at our fingers looking to hold our hand as we headed off to the area designated for the party.
I found myself rather attached to a little girl who didn’t offer a single word and seemed to be very picked on by the other kids. She seemed sad and in need of some affection so I sat with her for some time giving her some needed hugs. At least she smiled when I did this. Music was played and beer brought out – and those passengers who still felt rhythm in their feet got up and danced in the jungle with the villagers, united in the common celebration that Christmas still is – even if presents and holly, and mistletoe are absent.
Quite exhausted but with filled hearts, we boarded the truck after finishing a delicious lunch of fried beignets and freshly cooked (and slaughtered in our honor) chicken. We had a long drive in the direction of Makeni to complete – and since we were delayed in our journey, the plan was to find a new, good spot to bush camp for the night.
These plans made sense until you took into account that most open countryside is dense forest and/or tall grassland – not ideal for pitching tents to accommodate 22. And we had our own Christmas dinner shopped for and to prepare for.
Late in the day, we pulled off the main highway at a number of promising looking locations that proved unsuitable upon further examination. Being told there were several villages with flat ground up ahead on a dirt road, we took a 20 minute detour only to find a village all out and dressed to the nines celebrating Christmas in the open air of their local soccer field. The entire crowd of at least a hundred came running up to the truck and started whooping and hollering in excitement at seeing us. It became quite apparent that if we asked to “borrow” their soccer field for the night, we would be besieged with people utterly adamant in their curiosity to not give us a moment of peace.
So we pressed on as the sun began to set.
After another ten minutes or so we came across a different villages’ soccer field with only a few individuals roaming around. Their shocked faces turned to bemusement, suspicion and incredulity as our fearless leader asked if we might be able to pitch our tents in their field. Trying to explain tents to Sierra Leoneans was rather difficult and we were asked several times what our “purpose” there was? That we were just driving through West Africa on our way to Ghana did not seem at all plausible to these villagers, but they acquiesced and invited us to use their soccer field.
Little by little, as we poured out of the truck and began pitching our tents and preparing our evening meal, the villagers came out in growing numbers to witness the spectacle that was us. Rarely have I felt so self-conscious, but by the time we served up the pit-roasted chicken and grilled stuffing to each other but a crowd of at least 50 were simply standing in awe of us and I got the strongest sense of what it felt like to be a chimp at the zoo. The villagers didn’t grow bored and just kept watching us for what felt like hours as we moved on to dessert and whisky. Of course we wanted to share our meal with them – but had we done so – we might have set off a mob with people all grabbing for food. There wasn’t enough to feed both groups anyways, so we ate, as best we could under the ever so watchful eyes of our new neighbors.
In setting up my tent that night I also got a little surprise of my own when I found two hapless lizards whom I had accidentally prematurely murdered when I rolled them up into my tent on Tiwai that morning. Luckily for me, one of the Peters on the group was kind enough to extract and dispose of the poor things for me while I grimaced in disgust from a distance.
And so, Christmas was had and enjoyed by all in a most unforgettable and strange way. My second Christmas in Africa in three years.