Why am I writing this?
This article has been inspired by reading the thread posted by sunny buns and a trip report by Kris Solem. What I will say is, I have met dozens and dozens of really friendly and interesting people in all parts of the world I have been to. (Us Euros tend to be well travelled!) The nice guys definitely outweigh the bad guys.
Original Forum Thread
Sierra WHERE? An overview.
In March 1992, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa that most people had never heard of at that time.
It's situated a couple of countries South of the Gambia, just before the big Western bulge of Africa starts to level out toward Ghana, and is between 5 and 9 degrees North of the equator. Then, it had a population of around 5 million, in a country about the size of Scotland. Amongst the many indigenous languages, some people speak English or Krio, a sort of Pidgin English. As a nation, it started to exist around the late 1780s when freed slaves from America and the UK bolstered the local population, and it became a Crown Colony on 1st January 1808. It was granted independence from Britain on 26th April 1961.
I don't know what I said or did, but six weeks after I left, there was a fairly popular revolution, which overthrew the Government of Major General Momoh, who had been the stable but corrupt leader of the party that had ruled for around 30 years!
Changing of the Guard
My parents were living there during the revolution and were able to tell me of the benefits Captain Valentine Strasse had brought with him to power. He was the youngest leader of any nation in the world at that time, and the country was swept with a wave of hope and optimism. I had the chance of going back 6 months later and well, who wouldn't?
Upon arriving, it was evident that things had changed. Everywhere you looked, there was the new party's flag or a slogan. Work parties were clearing weeds from ditches and rusty wrecks were removed. Of course, what were most in evidence were soldiers.
Think of the Changing of the Guard or a Sandhurst parade(Insert West Point if you speak American). Well these soldiers were nothing like that. Some had uniforms, others had part uniforms and some had a pair of ragged shorts and T-shirt. A multitude of weapons would be carried between them, with differing degrees of familiarity. It ranged from machine guns and rifles, to a pistol thrust into the waistband of their trousers or a machete swung nonchalantly in the breeze. Checkpoints were located at strategic points, supplemented by roving patrols.
All in all, the troops appeared
to be acting properly and didn't much bother westerners. The overnight curfew had been relaxed and you could now go out after dark without being shot dead!
My parents lived in a gated compound, shared with a number of diplomats and their staff. On Fridays, we would start with drinks at someone's house; Saturday would be the golf club and Sunday the beach. Arrangements were made well in advance, as there was no mobile phone coverage and little reliable landline availability.
Friday evening came and we realised that we wouldn't be able to go out that evening, as my kids were unwell. Rather than be able to ring up and offer apologies, I thought I would drive across town and let people know we wouldn't be there for the evening.
I borrowed my mother's Daihatsu Sport track, and set off across town. It was already loaded up with tomorrow's golf clubs, but as I was driving from one secure compound to another, that was no problem.
As I drove through the dark, up Spur Road toward Hastings, I saw a group of soldiers disgorging from some ramshackle vehicles at the side of the road. I paid this no attention, as military activity was so common.
I duly arrived, stopped for one Star beer and delivered my message. I waved a cheery goodbye to all and set off back down Spur Road toward home. By the time I got to the soldiers, there was now a small queue of vehicles at a checkpoint. A chain was across the road at windscreen height and white painted logs across the road, studded with metal bars to rip out the tyres and sumps of those who wouldn't stop.
Again, I wasn't overly concerned as such stuff was fairly commonplace. As I sat in the queue with the engine off, a young boy walked down the side of the waiting vehicles, looking inside at the occupants and contents. He was a ‘part uniform’ soldier and had a pistol thrust into the waistband of his ragged trousers. Upon reaching me, he became quite agitated and drew his gun. He didn't point it at me but began to shout either in Krio or such heavily accented English that I didn't have a clue what he was saying. It seemed that I was supposed to get out of the vehicle. I got out and stood there quite bemused, when I noticed that another soldier had now levelled a rocket propelled grenade at my chest. I can distinctly remember thinking, "If he pulls that trigger, we'll all be blown up."
Before I realised I should now fear for my mortal safety, a far more assured soldier sauntered up. He was the ‘full uniform’ type and carried an assault weapon. The boy soldier was shouting excitedly. Promotion for him no doubt, when I was found to be a mercenary or spy.
The professional soldier peered into the back of the jeep at the sophisticated weaponry I was carrying, turned to the boy with a clip of the ear type motion and said "Golf clubs. Golf clubs!"
Nothing more was said to me, but the assembled men turned and carried on down the line of cars behind me. I got back into the vehicle and when it was my turn, drove on down the hill and back home. I told my story and it was only in the telling that I realised I could have been arrested or shot! Star beer never tasted as good as the several I had later that night!
Links to BBC news articles about Sierra Leone
These articles will give you a flavour of what was happening in SL during the late 90s.
You will get a good idea of the situation from the recent film "Blood Diamond" with Leonardo Di Caprio.
War Crimes Tribunal
A few years later, the other side of the continent.
A few years later, a friend Gary and I tried to climb Mount Kenya. Batian is the highest peak in the massif at 5,200 metres, and has a 26 pitch rock route (North Face Standard Route or Normal route) up it’s North Face.
The North Face Standard Route, Mount Kenya
The trip didn’t go as well as planned, and we didn’t manage to summit, spending about 17 hours in a snow storm about half way up the face. We tried a big ice route up the south face, and failed that as well.
Retreat from The Firmin Tower
Zen like contemplation beneath the Diamond Couloir
The weather had been so rainy that at the start of the trip I had bought a large but cheap and colourful umbrella.
It started well....
Finally we retreated to a little dusty town below the mountain to fill up on roasted goat and White Cap beer. A day or so later, we were going stir crazy and decided to head for Nairobi for the last few days before our flight back to the UK. By now, we were quite accustomed to travel in this part of the world, and we thought nothing of using the local afternoon bus that would get us to Nairobi early evening. We stuck out like sore thumbs on the bus, with our pasty pale faces and western clothes, but that was no problem, just mildly interesting for the locals.
As we neared the bus terminal, we agreed on a security plan. We each had a big rucksack full of climbing gear, and a smaller day sack with personal gear. As we arrived, we would stay out of the crowds, drop all our kit into a pile and one of us would remain with it whilst the other grabbed a taxi to whisk us off to a budget hostel further into the city.
Bus station sprint!
As we arrived, the bus pulled into a football field sized area. All the buses stacked along one side, front end in, where a waist high barrier seperated the passenger area from the road area. Cleverly, we piled our gear on the road side of the barrier, and stood either side of it. As we scanned for a taxi, I leisurely leaned back against the barrier and stretched my arms out either side of me, so that my hands rested on the top. No sooner had I put my hand against the metal than ‘WHOOSH’ my watch was torn from my left wrist. As I spun around, I saw my assailant dart off to my right with my watch. The item didn’t have any special sentimental value, it hadn’t been a present from a dear departed elderly relative, or a special gift. In fact although it was quite a nice diver’s watch, it still only cost about £50. But it was my watch. Mine.
I immediately leapt the barrier and gave chase, umbrella in hand like a short lance! What my attacker couldn’t have known was I had just spent 3 weeks walking and climbing at high altitude with a rucksack on my back. In 1994, I was a street cop and used to chasing down bad guys. (Where I live, few of us have guns, you need to get hands on with our desperadoes!).
He was only a few feet ahead of me, but running fast. He ran alongside a bus shelter full of people and did a quick ‘U’ turn around it, so that he was heading back the other way. I pushed through the crowd and gained a few yards on him. By this time I think he was getting desperate. He was starting to barge through people and looking back at me more and more often. Loud shouts were going up behind me.
He ran out into the road area, and as he tried to dart left between two parked buses, he momentarily slowed enough for me to catch him. I used our momentum to slam him into the side of the parked bus, and as he bounced off, I swung him around so that he fell to the ground.
I leaned over him with the umbrella like a club in my hand as he lay wide eyed on his back. “Give me my watch!” I shouted. He wildly shook his head and replied in thickly accented English that he didn’t have it. I raised my umbrella screaming “Give it to me!” and he unfolded his right hand that was clamped over my watch, all in one piece, except the pin on one side of the strap. I snatched it from him and stood up.
Three things were very evident. My umbrella was now shaped like a scimitar and unlikely to work again; a very large crowd had gathered around us and I was very much a minority group in that part of town; I had recovered my £50 watch but left a few £Ks worth of gear with my mate who may or may not be okay!
I stood up straight, threw the umbrella haughtily to the ground and walked through the parting crowd leaving my tormentor lying there. I got to where Gary should have been and for a split second froze when he wasn’t there and neither was our gear. A loud shout from a few yards away and I turned to see him shoving the stuff rapidly into the back of a battered old taxi. Quickly I joined him and we sped (crawled, belching fumes) away to safety.
It was only on reflection that I realised the risks I had taken to recover my watch!
PostscriptTwo hours after publishing this article, I was stood at the side of the road about 12 miles from home with a puncture to the front wheel of my mountain bike. It took less than 3 minutes for a middle age couple to stop their car and offer me a lift somewhere. There are more good people out there than bad, you just got to know the difference.