"Very bad snake!!! It will JUMP at you!!!" Coming from the mouth of our local guide, these words were mildly disturbing. Especially since, as my girlfriend pointed out, the three locals leading our small group had walked within centimetres of the fantastically camouflaged Gaboon Viper; she had been the one who spotted it. When you hire a machete-wielding guide, isn't he supposed to be the one noticing and avoiding neurotoxic creatures?
We were on the second day of a more-epic-than-we'd-planned trip up Mount Bintumani, Sierra Leone's highest peak. Coming from the Rockies, we figured we were tough enough to handle an 1,800-metre-high peak, despite the challenge that the blazing dry-season heat might pose. So far, though, the trip had been exhausting - and we were only halfway up the mountain.
The distances aren't long in Sierra Leone, but the roads can be incredibly difficult. Getting to the foot of Mount Bintumani in the Loma Mountains required a six-hour ride on a 125-cc dirt bike through rivers and down a road that would make the North Shore's best mountain biker nervous. After that rough, dusty, hot and tiring ride, we certainly weren't ready for a spontaneous meeting with the local chief when, five kilometres short of our destination, we pulled into the village of Bandakarafaia at dusk. We were seated on the chief's veranda while the men of the village gathered around us, after they had herded away all of the curious kids. As is the custom, pleasantries were exchanged - the welcoming of the foreigners to the village, the thanking for the hospitality, all many times over and in many languages translated through many mouths.
After half an hour, we came to the meat. Could we be granted permission to climb the mountain? The chief said we could, if we provided a donation for the village youth. We took leave of his house with Lahai, a community teacher who, as the only villager who could speak English, had been acting as the informal translator. Lahai warned us that the chief had a reputation for embezzling, and that we should give him the money to pass on to the chief in public, the better to ensure accountability.
When the meeting reconvened, Lahai handed over our money and the chief offered all of us beds for the night, except for a special proposition for my girlfriend: "... and you, you will sleep with me tonight!"
Quicker on the draw than I, she blurted out, "Uh, this is my husband!" and threw her arm around me. The chief laughed it off; none of us was sure whether he was serious, but clearly he'd figured it couldn't hurt to try.
We were shown our rooms in the small local "hospital" - it had been built by the government three years prior, but had never seen a nurse or a doctor, as is typical of many infrastructure projects in Sierra Leone. Plenty of money for flashy buildings, but not much to ensure that they function properly. After adjusting to the idea of sleeping in a place that had floors spattered with dried blood, meeting the "village madman" and shooing off the still-inquisitive youngsters, we were finally able to lay our red-dust-encrusted bodies down for the night.
The next day, we rose well before dawn, wrangled ourselves a guide after a lot of negotiation and started sweating our way up the steep mountain. Beginning in the fields of local farmers, we soon transitioned to dense and humid jungle as the hot sun and the gruelling ascent began. After getting past the sleepy viper, we emerged from the forest onto a savannah plateau, greeted by baboons and tracks of forest buffalo, that led the way to the summit.
Frustratingly, after seven hours of hiking, we ran short of time with the summit only a half-hour off, and had to retreat in order to return to the village before dark. But for us primate-starved Canadians, sighting a group of baboons on the plateau mitigated the pain. Another meal of oily peanut sauce with bony fish over rice, another night in the hospital, and the next day we were on our way back to a bucket shower, a whole lot dirtier and more tired than we left, but with a great trip in the bag - as long as the bikes didn't break down on the way home.
Special to The Globe and Mail