The morning we left Lakka, on our walk to the beach past women sweeping their stoeps and men ruminating over their first cigarette, Ruby had been inundated with congratulations for her fire dance the night before. At breakfast she was reflecting on how much she liked the place but if she stayed she’d “have to do something about the litter on the beach”. She wondered if there was a market for being a motivational speaker for sustainable tourism, adding she wouldn’t mind going round West African countries explaining how things like this could make all the difference to visitors.
How ironic that this was the day we discovered River No. 2.
Having said goodbye to Chief Michael for the second time, we set off back down the Peninsula Highway for another 50 km. So many people had told us that we couldn’t leave Freetown without seeing River No. 2 that Sampson had reluctantly acquiesced.
We were not disappointed. River No. 2 is the most bizarrely named but the most naturally spectacular spot we have visited. We have been to some stunning beaches, notably in Cameroun, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, but Sierra Leone’s River No. 2 is in a league of its own when it comes to unspoiled splendour. The views of the sea, the rivermouth and the dense forest that cover the mountains that surround it are each beautiful in their own right, but in combination they are breathtaking. As Sampson and I lay in the warm shallows grinning at each other trying to take it all in, I reflected that River No. 2 is like a wide-angled, iMax cinema version of Knysna.
I was even more impressed to discover that River No. 2 is the first genuinely community-run resort we have encountered on the West Coast of Africa.
In the early 90s, five boys barely out of their teens decided that, instead of fighting each other to compete for the attention of the meagre number of tourists arriving at their beach on the outskirts of Freetown, they would work together for the benefit of all. Fellow locals were initially so suspicious of the No. 2 River Development Association, they had the police arrest this “bunch of thieves”. But eventually the cooperative’s actions proved louder than words and won the trust of their community.
Initially they cleared the brush, built beach huts from palm fronds, and charged 50c per car for weekend visitors. From the money collected they built first a restaurant, then a toilet, then a full kitchen. This was in the middle of a civil war – UN workers were their best customers. Twenty years later, founder member of the NDA ‘Captain George’ proudly points to the 22 bungalows lining the isthmus and recounts how they currently support 32 children on scholarship to local schools.
The entrance charge is now $1 per person, and $2 for a day’s hire of a ‘five set’: three wooden chairs, a table and parasol. A shady boma costs $5, while bungalows are $60 per night. Profits have enabled the NDA to build 12 houses in the village, provide solar electricity and a clean water supply, as well as care for widows and the sick. It seems very appropriate that former fishing boat skipper George’s surname is Hope.
They offer excursions: a boat ride up the river to see monkeys and birds of the forest, hiking up the mountain to a waterfall with a spectacular view or fishing expeditions. They can also arrange a trip to one of the many islands off Freetown: Banana Island, where slaves were held before being transported to the new world, Turtle Island or beautiful Bonthe.
General Manager Victor Harding told me how he used to come after school to help clear stones and bottles from the site. “We would go up the river to collect stones to build with, and cut our feet – there was no first aid for wounds then. Now we make bricks.” Of the original 34 members, 8 have passed on; there are now 90. New members have to serve an apprenticeship of 1-2 years to prove they have a “clean heart to push development” and then submit a letter of motivation. We watched a group working together to make bricks for the new toilet block. The feeling of teamwork amongst peers was tangible.
Women make up 40% of members and have their own wing of the organisation. Their Chairwoman sits on the NDA’s executive management committee of ten, along with the Head Man, Secretary General and the Finance Manager. They meet every Monday and check accounts at the end of every month. The takings are transparent to everyone and joint decisions are made on what to do with profits after savings.
Victor said “My ambition is for River No. 2 to look like paradise. That people would like this to be their home. I want water sports, more things to entertain. I would like to take this organization up, up, up – better than now.”
I asked PR and Marketing Officer Captain George how they have managed to maintain unity over so many years? “We were very strong in our minds. We fight, we endure”. Bit by bit, peacemaking habits were ingrained and cynics were brought into the fold. “When they see houses, light, water. When someone sick, we can jump in.”
I asked George if he’s ever had a break from working here; he cited 3 months he spent in Australia and 3 weeks in Uganda, both on government-funded tourism training. That’s hardly what I’d call a holiday. The NDA is his life’s work, and his inspiring legacy to his community.
In Australia he told me he learned about the necessity of managing plastic waste and recycling. I can honestly say that River No. 2 is the cleanest beach in the whole of Sierra Leone. In comparison, Bureh after the New Year party was a disaster of broken glass waiting to happen.
The NDA employ members in three shifts throughout the week. The staff’s pride is reflected in the careful pressing of the white shirts worn for serving in the bar and restaurant and the blue shirts of the gate and parking personnel.
A representative of the craft stall holders also sits on the board. At River No. 2 there is a gorgeous range of clothing made from local prints and a type of tie-dyed batik called gara, as well as wooden and beaded jewelry, sculpture and masks. We have not seen merchandise for tourists on this scale since Ghana. Stallholders are immensely industrious – Ruby was amazed to be kept awake by the noise of a sewing machine working later than the DJ on Saturday night.
When I asked Captain George about his ambitions for River No. 2 he said he would like to upgrade the bungalows with more furniture, but most of all he wanted better management training – he wants to prepare his team for the increasing numbers of people he knows will be coming.
German NGO Welt Hunger Hilfe funded the installation of the NDA’s solar power and initiated a training exchange with other beach communities. George told me they had gone to speak with their neighbours at Tokeh, Mama Beach and Bureh with limited success. When I reflected that at Lakka we were hounded by touts as we walked along the beach, trying to persuade us to come sit at this or that bar, he said yes, there was no unity at Lakka, everyone was out for themselves which is why they only have a small car park and no capacity to expand opportunities. George related how the NDA has rejected millions of dollars to develop River No. 2 offered by unscrupulous businessmen as they know the longterm interests of the community would not be served by such a sell out.
They’ve never received any financial support from the Ministry of Tourism, despite the government relying on the NDA to act as their flagship project. My ambition for George is that he might be sent as an ambassador to neighbouring countries: undeveloped and unspoilt Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire could benefit hugely from the NDA’s model of community-based sustainable tourism.
We haven’t yet paid to stay anywhere en route, except when Mom visited us in Ghana. Although the NDA is more deserving of dollars than any other resort we have seen, such an outlay would cripple our budget. Captain George kindly waived the $20 per night camping fee in exchange for featuring in a magazine piece I am writing. Dear reader, I hope you might consider supporting the NDA’s work by recommending River No. 2 to your adventurous friends. My greatest wish is that some forward-thinking environmental concern would invest in the NDA and help them upgrade their facilities.
Sampson went strangely cold after that first swim, and had a high fever alternating with chills in the night. Meanwhile I had developed diarrhoea and leaden limbs, and wondered if there might be something amiss with the water we’d collected in Regent. Only now did Sampson mention that the locals had said they used it for washing but not for drinking, as it was “contaminated”. He’d been confident that our We Love Water 10 micron sediment filter could handle anything. I insisted he change it, even though he’d installed a new one at Kendeja only 2 months ago. It was now black.
That morning was the first time Ruby asked me for advice in tackling her algebra; I have to admit I recoiled in shock.
How sensible our original plan was: to tour the continent and be back in SA a whole term before she started Grade 9… sigh.
Sampson was no help, being in full ‘man-flu’ mode, and lying down for the rest of the week. But, on the bright side, I was very proud how easily our kids were making friends compared to when we first set out.
On Saturday morning I glimpsed Zola with a posse of about eight lads on the other side of the river teaching them touch rugby!
At the weekend, the NDA’s Sankofa Entertainment Complex was cooking. Sankofa is apparently a Akan word from Ghana meaning ‘we will continue until we succeed’.
Trendy young Freetowners descended in their droves on Saturday to eat a late lunch, play football, flirt and dance to the booming beats of the DJ.
On Sunday afternoon, it was equally packed but this time with large Lebanese families who unloaded everything but the kitchen sink from their estate cars and set to braiing kebabs and brewing tea on coal brasiers. A busload of jolly Indian corporate types parked next to the truck. The vibe was so lovely.
We met John McEwan, from Bude via Canada, and his Sierra Leonean girlfriend Sandra. He’s renting a bungalow at River No.2 while working to construct a hotel in Tokeh. She kindly gave me some meds that later proved invaluable…
Sampson had another terrible night, this time with violent yellow foul-smelling diarrhoea every hour. In the morning, we tested him for malaria, but it showed negative, and he didn’t have another fever. I was doing extra T’ai Chi in an attempt to ward off my sluggishness and wondering if the kids were increasingly difficult to wake because of teenage hormones or something more alarming.
On Sunday morning Sampson was feeling a little better, perhaps due to the delicious protein boost provided by Simon. In the afternoon, when the tide turned, the four of us had the best fun ever floating together down the river to the sea, swept along by a giddy current, giggling through alternating warm and cold layers of clear water, wading into the shallows, then walking across the resort to jump in and do it all over again. It was more of a rush than any ride at uShaka Marine World.
At low tide, Zola was off exploring amongst the mangroves. We only told him afterwards that John had mentioned there was a 7-8ft crocodile that comes down and hangs out there in the wet season.
On Sunday night Sampson had dreadful diarrhoea again and I was pretty sure he had giardia. On Monday 18th Jan I was thinking about going to hospital to check which of our meds I should give him so I called Manu our voluble Italian friend.
Manu was uncharacteristically brusque: “Is he hiccupping?” “Er… no” I said, momentarily thrown by this unexpected greeting. “Is he vomiting?” “No” I said. “Ah good” Manu exhaled loudly, “You know that Ebola is back, no?” We didn’t.
River No. 2, despite being so near to Freetown, is in some sort of tuck in the bay and has zero radio or internet reception. 42 days after Liberia’s last case, on the very day that the WHO had declared the West African outbreak finally over, a woman in Northern Sierra Leone was diagnosed. She’d died on Saturday. There were 109 people who’d come into contact with her now in quarantine. Shoo. We decided to avoid going to any medical facilities until we absolutely had to. Any giardia medication for Sampson was better than nothing.
On Tuesday, to escape feeling rather caged, Zola and I waded across the river and walked 6km to the next village of Tokeh. On our way back along the beach munching bananas and a dense Sierra Leonean equivalent of vetkoek, we came across an exclusive hotel called The Place. We stepped briefly into the air-conditioned lobby to admire the stylish African artworks, scarlet sofas and plasma screen TVs. It costs hundreds of dollars per night to stay there, and although the gardens are much to be admired, I reflected it wasn’t that much better than River No. 2 – whose views are far superior. If I had dollars to spend, I would much rather they were going towards a local village’s school fees than an overseas businessman’s bank account.
That afternoon, I drifted down the river holding hands with Ruby, luxuriating in the euphoria of feeling better, imagining my immune system was winning and that I was over the worst.
P.S. Salone is the Krio word for Sierra Leone, like Naija for Nigeria and Mzansi for South Africa.