Sierra Leone: People-to-People
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

  Dispatch 9 - Tiwai Island  

Blama-TIWAI ISLAND (70km, 44miles) Formerly this area had a lot of Liberian refugee camps but it has pretty much returned to forest.

Points of interest: Twai Island Sanctuary; chimpanzee, colobus monkey, hippopotamus, birds and more.

Cycling Conditions: dirt, rolling with a few bigger hills.


Blama-Potoru road Blama-Potoru roadOur route continued to be scenic, low traffic and off the beaten track, which means the road was often narrow and delightfully shaded.

One of the unique features of this section was aging signs relating to Liberian refugee camps (below).  The signs identify a variety of projects like water treatment plants, construction of shelters, integrated development projects, and other infrastructure.  All the refugees have now left and there has been an effort to do environmental restoration where the camps were.  The last evidence of this period is the aging signs.

Sierra Leone, sign associated with Liberian refuge camp Sierra Leone, sign associated with Liberian refuge camp Sierra Leone, sign associated with Liberian refuge camp

More story of the issues and development came from non-refugee related signs:  These highlighted AIDS awareness, human rights, food security and a number of other issues and projects.

Sierra Leone, traditional Mende house The traditional architecture in the area is distinctive for the height of the roof.  More than many other area in Africa, this area, and Sierra Leone in general, seems to be maintaining their traditional architecture (clay structures with thatched roofs), as opposed to imported building technology (cement block structures and corrugated metal roofs).  It is not clear if this choice is because traditional architecture creates a cooler, more livable environment, or for economic reasons.  Western-style buildings, while more expensive to construct, are often a status symbol.  They also usually require less ongoing maintenance.

This rises a reoccurring thought: Unfortunately, there is a general lack of a clearly identifiable "Sierra Leonean" cultural character.  This observation is important because the Sierra Leonean people seem want to be more than that.  They want to be seen as distinctive and unique if for no other reason than so that outsiders want to come and visit and learn about their uniqueness

While traditional architecture pops up in villages there is almost always enough block constructed building so that traditional forms rarely distinguishes the character of the community.  Other exemplar of material culture like distinguishable ethnical dress, decorative art, landscaping and the like, are also rare to non-existing.  Similarly, most of the common visible religious, holiday and ritual culture is drawn from imported Christianity and Islam.

Perhaps this stems from economic conditions, where people are using so much of their effort to make ends meet that preserving an ostensively by-gone culture isn't within their means.  Or maybe it is just that the culture is dynamic and what we see is what it is.  But if this is all there is or will be, it is just another lush, green, friendly place on the coast of West Africa.  Not bad, but alas, not exactly the desired level of uniqueness.

Blama-Potoru road Blama-Potoru road Blama-Potoru road

Trust me that this blog doesn't include every picture of the road in the file, but it was such a nice ride for hours -- until the heat index rose at midday -- that I have to throw a few images in periodically, even if there is nothing strikingly new to say about them.  The photos above were take at different places over a twenty kilometer (12 mile) stretch of road.

Sierra Leone, upland rice farm Sierra Leone, upland rice farm Sierra Leone, upland rice farm

The same is true of rice farms and rice; not every photo is included but there was a lot of it, with enough variation on a theme, that I took a lot of pictures.  Above are a few from this section of our odyssey.

Sierra Leone, UN peace keeping troops built water tower There is a lot of speculation about what these structure (left) are for.  Sifting through the information, keep what makes sense and filtering out that which seems too bizarre, and after physical inspecting the structure, my contribution to the debate is that it is or was a water tower, probably built by a UN peace keeping detachment that was stationed at the site.  Currently the structure doesn't appear to be operational and there is no settlement within several kilometers of the location.

Potoru-Kambama road, road sign This picture warranted the effort because on the road sign (center right of the photo, almost in the trees) showing a bend to the left.  We had traveled hundreds of miles on curvy roads without similar sign postings, but for reasons that weren't totally clear, this corner has been provided with a sign.  It is not a though the road is it suitable for such high speed travel and a driver might miss the bend in the tracks.

Moa River, Tiwai IslandTiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary is an island in the Moa River.  Each side of the river is a different chieftaincy so the local administrative committee for the sanctuary and the staff is composed of individuals from each chieftaincy.

Tiwai Island, Moa River, man paddeling a dugout canoeMoa River, Tiwai IslandTransport to the island is by boat.  The locals travel on the river paddling dugout canoes (left).  Guests and staff of Tiwai Island cross by a very modestly powered motor boat.  If the river is too high, the current too strong and the boat too loaded, it will struggle.

Seirra Leone, iguana in a treeBefore we even landed on the island we saw our first bit of wildlife (in addition to birds).  It was a large iguana lounging on a branch in a tree.  (An iguana, presumably the same one, was spotted on the same branch the next day and the day after that.  Had it not moved about a half a foot one might have thought that it was stuffed.  They eat insects that will come to them so this iguana might have found the perfect spot with an insect buffet table.) Click on the image for a close-up.

Sierra Leone, Tiwai Island, colobus monkey in a tree Because people seem to have a propensity for big things, Tiwia is best known for is primates (11 species), particularly chimpanzees and the rare and colorful Diana and colobus monkeys. Click on the image for a close-up of a colobus monkey.  There are chances for primate sightings on forest walks across the island and boat tours along the island's shoreline. 

The primates don't always cooperate with photographers.  The largest animal on the island is the shy pigmy hippopotamus.  While the hippopotamus are virtually impossible to see and the primate are generally back lit in the tops of the trees.  The mammal population would be stronger and less skittish if they hadn't be heavily hunted and poached during and after the civil war.  The rebels occupied and looted the island several times during the war.  With improved management and a period of peace for the wildlife, they should be a greater attraction in the future.

Primate aren't all of it:  There is a lot of interesting other life on the island that largely get over looked (from left to right above); roots that run out hundreds of feet half buried and half above ground, dense foliage made up of a mix of the 700 species of plants on the island, exotic root structures and giant trees.  Among the 700 species there must be volumes of ethno-botany to parse.

In addition to more sophisticated plant life there is a variety of mushrooms, lichens and fungus.  The ones shown below look like varieties of shelf mushrooms and oyster mushrooms.

Other more micro and macro objects that can be discovered on a forest walk are (from left to right, above); a giant spiders, enormous twisting vines, curious unidentified fruits and billions terminates busy recycling the forest.

Only a two small parts of the island are develop.  One area is for short-term visitors.  There is a central “barray” for relaxing and meals.  (Locally, a barray or barrie, is a community building that acts as a courtroom, a town hall and a general gathering place.)  It's lights are powered by a near-by solar panel.  Guest sleep on several permanent tent platforms located at the forests edge around the pavilion.  The platforms are open air, but raised to discourage some of the creepy crawlers and are constructed with a sturdy roof to keep the rain out.  One and two-person tents are pitched underneath and the tents are provisioned with a firm foam mattress and sheets.  Nearby is water tower and a building with toilets and gravity fed showers. Also in the visitor complex is the bar, a kitchen and storage buildings for the staff.

Tiwai island research station A kilometer away is a second, smaller, built up area for researchers (left).  The research station was also looted and damaged during the rebel occupations. 

Tiwai Island researcher, April, and guests.During our visit there was only one researcher in residence, April (right, wearing the skirt), who is studying the pygmy hippopotamus. To summarize what we learned: the local pygmy hippopotamus have some habits that are similar to their larger cousins (diet and vocalization), but they are mush more reclusive (solitary) and illusive.  A lot of the information they are able to gather is from motion activated cameras that have been placed in the field. To my knowledge, unique to this area, the local people find them tasty, which keeps an already small population more fragile.

Tiwai Island, price list for local food stuffsIn the pavilion, at the guest camp, is a display with a variety of information about staying on Tiwia Island, what you can do, what you might see (animals and bird charts) and how it all works.  One items that was a little different is a list of items you might find in the local market and their prices (left).  To get a sense of the cost of living, in early 2009, there were about 3000 Leones to one US dollar.





 Next dispatch.



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