River No. 2

Posted: February 24th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , | No Comments »

There are places in the world so remote, so obscure, so isolated, that they were never graced with a name. No explorer or cartographer, no colonial leader or military governor deemed them worthy to claim. Yet these obscure regions often contain some of the most breathtaking settings on Earth.

The beauty of River No 2 is enhanced by its seclusion. It is only 15 miles south of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and only 6 miles south of the beautiful Lakka resort; yet even now the road conditions are so poor that it takes nearly a half hour to drive from Lakka.

The drive was its own adventure. In late 2001, the UN, supported by the UK, was still enforcing a cease-fire between the provisional government and the rebel factions. A decade of civil war left much of the infrastructure in ruins, and the economy in shambles. With per capita income measured in the hundreds of dollars a year, any vehicle is considered a luxury. When cars in the US and Europe are considered far too old and decrepit for our streets, we ship them en masse to the third world. There they are driven until they literally fall to pieces, then are repaired and driven some more.

We loaded luggage into a taxi, an ancient Mercedes (much prized for its durability) painted in a bemusing number of yellow shades. Eventually the engine started, and we made our way along the shell-shocked road. The fantasy of shock absorbers was swiftly dispelled by the remains of the asphalt. We snaked from one side of the road to the other, winding around shell craters as large as the car. Progress was slow. The African sun was unforgiving, and the dust smothering.

We were suddenly startled by a bang. What was that? What was that terrible roaring noise? The driver stood on his brake, a full panic stop — from maybe 15 miles an hour. We exited the car, and surveyed the damage. The entire exhaust system from the Y-pipe to the tail pipe, has simply fallen from the car.

The driver was horrified. He grasped his head with both hands, and surveyed the damage to his most prized possession and source of livelihood. Another passenger opened a pack of cigarettes, and offered one to the driver. “I don’t smoke”, he declared — then took one anyway. I took one as well, as I didn’t have any better ideas.

After a few minutes, the driver regained his composure. He smiled at us and exclaimed, “TIA (this is Africa)!”. He lifted the pipe and muffler, partially wedged it into the trunk, and on we went. TIA indeed.

The rest of the trip was comparatively uneventful, as we made our way down the coast of Sierra Leone’s Western Area. The road cut through dense jungles that ran from the tops of the mountains down to the coast. We arrived at the “parking lot” for the beach, nothing more than a large clearing. We exited the shadows of the short jungle trail, into the dazzling brightness.

The equitorial sun was reflected by the brilliant white sand, sand that crunched beneath our feet like snow. The river flowed through the mangroves into a small estuary, and had built a white sand delta.

The giant waves of the deep blue ocean crashed on the outer sand barrier, then rippled through a shallow turquoise lagoon and lapped onto the shore. The rush of the river mixed with the crash of the waves. A little further out, fishermen cast nets for fish sheltering outside of the barrier. We let the majesty of the scene sink in, then began to explore.

As we explored, local children would run up with fresh coconuts for sale. For only a few leone — fractions of a US penny — they would cut the tops, and let us drink the milk. They then took the husk, cut it open, and gouged out the meat for us.

After rehydrating, we rented canoes and paddled up the estuary. African guides lead us through the mangroves, showing us flights of birds and uncomfortably close crocodilians. The estuary transitioned to river, which lead us to the nearby waterfalls.

The falls were the gathering place for the small nearby village. Women washed clothes on the rocks while children played in the shallows. We pulled onto the shore to rest and eat, and began the short journey back.

Whump whump whump… the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. We rounded the bend of the river, and the main beach came back into view. The beach was now garnished with an ancient Russian helicopter disgorging Dutch tourists. The Russian (actually Ukrainian, but that’s another story) pilots headed for a nearby hut that served as the bar, and began drinking the lukewarm beers. Not the most comforting sight for a potential passenger.


The new flood of people, and the relative lateness of the day, prompted us to finally leave this shard of paradise. We returned to our taxis, and eventually to the din and bustle of Freetown.

I have seen many beautiful places, but I think none quite rivals this little known beach. While I have yet to return, I know in my heart I will see it again someday.

The Dive

Posted: May 20th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , | No Comments »

Sweltering under Florida’s summer sun, wearing wetsuits necessary for a prolonged dive in the 72 degree water, we assemble and test our diving gear and review our dive plan. 100 feet below us is one of the spring-fed caverns that has made northern Florida a diving mecca for cave divers all over the world.

Though excited, we buddy check each other’s gear with the utmost care; a rapid surface ascent would be far too dangerous from such depths. First, the air pressure gauge; 3000 psi, a full tank. Next the primary and backup regulators; both flow easily. Next tested is the inflatable vest known as a buoyancy compensator, or “BC”. All is secure and functional. The diver’s weight belt is verified, and the dive computers have fresh batteries. We are ready to dive.

As we slip below the waves, the senses change. The sounds of the surface world are immediately muted; the rustle of the breeze, the chirping of birds and clucking of squirrels, the everyday sounds to which we are accustomed are immediately quenched and replaced with the sound and sensation of one’s own breath. First the sharp hiss of the intake, followed by the exhale, a slow gurgling rumble. Each breath is intensely cold and dry, yet soothing as it fills the lungs. Thus encased in a sensory cocoon surrounding us with self awareness, we sink further below the still surface.

The waters are clear as glass, but the sun’s light becomes ever more attenuated. In our monochrome world, the soft turquoise of the shallows has given way to a dark navy blue at the opening of the cave. We activate our waterproofed torches and continue into a different world.

The floor of the cave is soft silt sand, but the walls and roof are limestone pockmarked from years of erosion. The ceiling shimmers with pockets of air, trapped and unable to flow back to the surface. We follow the lead of our guide; we remove our fins and rotate upside down. We inflate our BCs, and float until our feet touch the ceiling.

After a moment of vertigo, the world rotates; the change of perspective is a breathtaking transformation. The ceiling is our floor, cratered like the surface of the moon. The air pockets are a silver liquid that pools at our feet. We cup it in our hands; it flows through our fingertips and falls back to the ground. With buoyancy as our gravity, we bounce with each step, slowly returning to the surface like an Apollo astronaut. Some distance away, the circular opening of the cave hangs in our sky like a blue marble. We are no longer on anything recognizable as Earth.

We explore for a minute or a day; time no longer passes in a comprehensible way. The sound of breathing is finally punctuated by high pitched beeps; our dive computers are signaling it is time to leave. The chill of the water is taking its toll, but we moderate our ascent. Rising too quickly risks the bends, or a pulmonary embolism.

Our alien landscape sinks away below us, and we return to the bright, clear waters just below the surface. 15 feet away, we stop; our computers don’t advise a decompression stop, but our tables do, and we are risk-averse divers. 5 minutes later we break surface, and the senses return: the sounds of nature, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the breeze and the plethora of colors. To an alien world and back again, in under a half hour.