Monday, 10 February 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Tokeh, Sierra Leone'

First light: 0711 hrs
Time start: 0725 hrs
Time finish: 0807 hrs
Weather: 26C Humidity 83% (dry season)
Circumstances: Sunday morning beach run

Desmond Tutu to open the third post in the series. When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.

Sierra Leoneans own this land. Body & soul. What a piece of real estate it is.

0700 hrs. Alarm on my phone sounds. Awake to a bugle call for reveille. Today is special. As Shakespeare nearly wrote, once more onto the beach...

The trip out to Tokeh's around 30 kms. Takes just under an hour. The road is improving all the time. Some tarmac, some graded and some rough track. Probably even thirds, but it's getting better and quicker to come. The wet season, which takes hold in July is another matter. Make the most of these weekends while they last. When the rains come they don't finish until November. It can rain for a week or more.

There are a number of villages to pass through. The one that always raises a smile is 'I Don't Care'. Great name for a village. I see a fellow here on a motorbike with 4 huge barracudas' tied on the back. He doesn't care.

This area of Sierra Leone is quite staggering in its natural beauty. Some of the world’s most spectacular beaches. A well kept secret. Maybe too well kept. In 2012 the country had just 4,000 international visitors compared to 100,000 in nearby Gambia. Tourism would really help Sierra Leone. Spoil it in equal measure? What about the jobs it would bring? This country has massive youth unemployment.

I set off heading east from the 'Tokeh Beach Resort'. A shout out to Issa & Joe who run this fine establishment. It has 18 rooms, employs nearly 60 people from the local community (Tokeh) and sources nearly everything locally. Where else in the world can you have lobster dinner for Le90,000 - under $20. The fish is amazing; crab, barracuda, shrimp, marlin, grouper...straight from the sea to your plate. These lobsters are the daddies of lobster. This is lobster season.

The sunrise over the hills to the east is breathtaking. There are not many countries where the mountains meet the ocean. This is one of them. Few people moving around this time of the morning, though everyone is out of bed. This is Africa. The people I see all wave and smile and offer cheery greetings. I skirt around Tokeh village before heading south on the tarmac on an undulating road up to the telecom masts. I have the mountains on my left side and the ocean to my right.

I see mostly women and children, they are carrying stuff on their heads. Massive bowls of fruit and huge bundles of firewood mostly. There is no electricity here. The wood is for cooking. I make it up to the masts. Time to head down a few tracks heading west to the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. I arrive at the northern end of Tokeh Beach. What a glorious sight. Mesmerising.

If I could buy any house in the world, this is the one. At the tip of Tokeh Beach. It sits beautifully on the peninsular, great views and a secluded enclave with rocky outcrops shaping what in effect is a private beach. I scramble over the rocks onto the main sands. Time to open up the pace. The tide is out. The beach is firm. There's no camber. The scenery and backdrop make you run faster. On these runs you don't even look at your watch.

Tokeh is Gold 1. This is an old habit of coding everything, giving nicknames and call-signs. A full career in Her Majesty's Army does this to one. The next beach River No 2 is Gold 2, and the one at Sussex is Gold 3. These beaches are just 3 in nearly 400 kms of unspoilt coastline. People of a certain age may remember an advert on UK television. It was the setting for a Bounty bar 'taste of paradise' advert in the 1970s. This was filmed at Gold 2.

This is a coastline without western brand names. It's unspoilt by tourism with not a Gregg's the Bakers (who are in the most ridiculous places), Costa Coffee or a Holland & Barrett in sight.

As the Canadians might say, 'who's all there?'. Expat wise, it's the classic 3 M's of Africa. Missionaries, Mercenaries & Misfits. Suffice to say only the last group are any fun. The best Misfits I’ve ever met, anywhere on my travels, are in Sierra Leone. Mercenaries are here for the money in one form or another. Missionaries want to make a difference and have personal growth & adventure, and are often young NGO's. Misfits (mostly male), are quite often running towards something, or perhaps running away from something. This could be failed relationships, a string of broken marriages, perhaps they drink too much (understatement). They can be very colourful charismatic characters who just no longer fit in at home. In the hotel this weekend it's nearly all missionaries. Just different ones to those Mr. Tutu means.

I'm up on my toes. Nothing beats running on a hard flat beach at the edge of the ocean. I count 15 local fishing boats anchored up. Numerous more on the beach. The 'Good Lord', 'Sweet Jesus' (wasn't this was a taxi in Monrovia?), 'Bessie', and 'Sea Broom' are among them. The first catch of the day is already in. The fishermen are taking care of their nets and the last of the fish divided up. People are walking away with a few fish each. Fish is hugely important to these small local communities. Around 70% Sierra Leonens get their protein from fish.

The finish is at the new jetty at Gold 1. A good burst and the run's over. Really enjoyed it. 42 mins, not bad. I have a little walk on the jetty to the helipad to cool down. I look back towards the hotel and start to think about eggs and coffee.

Back in the day, and before the war, a French investor developed a 600 room resort here, with a golf course, nightclub, ocean liner, and helicopter transport to this very helipad. Through the 80s and early 90s it became a highly regarded international tourist destination, with many dignitaries, celebrities and jet set bathing on the white sands.

The resort was a victim of being in the right place at the wrong time. War broke out in the early 90s. It became impossible to continue the resort by the middle of 1995. Everyone was evacuated. With no presence to secure the resort, slowly at first, then with ever increasing scale and organisation it was pulled apart piece by piece. It's on the way back. I wish Gold 1 well.

Looking forward, well that's Sierra Leone done for now. Hopefully more visitors will come. Please spread the word. The next run will be at the end of Feb in one of Africa's fastest growing economies. It's Accra, the capital of Ghana, formerly known as The Gold Coast. Gold 4 perhaps. See you there.

Oh, and a couple of people have asked about being guest runners. The first one will be call-sign 'Wing Woman', at some point in the future. Although Canadian she has the same name as a previous landlady in the Rovers Return a few years back. The call-sign works better. On the subject of Canadians, how do you get 43 drunk Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, please leave the pool...