A weekend at the beach
Georgie filled our glasses and we sat back on the porch, watching the rain stream off the thatch, glittering in the white and orange lights dotted amongst the trees. We had the entire beach to ourselves.
We were choosing songs for the wedding playlist, free to sing the best ones at the tops of our voices whilst the rain lashed down and just across the sand the black sea pulsed against the shore. Crabs flickered in the light, dancing among the streams of rainwater that flowed across the white sands and a lone cat lurked in the lee of the big house.
Tokeh is a relatively short drive from Makeni, three hours on good roads – a nice drive across the plain out of Makeni and then the road flows through small towns and roadside communities, across the narrow bridge where a dozen stalls line each side of the river and traders take advantage of the slowing traffic to ply their wares – a mass of children and adults leaning into the car, shouting “concuber, concuber”, “look at my mangoes!”, “I have pineapples, look at my pineapples!” On through the police check points where officers in blue camouflage with ak-47s slung across their shoulders wave us on, Habib tooting the horn as we wave thanks. We ease slowly past the overladen and brightly painted poda-podas that strain up the hills belching smoke, wave at the apprentices clinging to the back of rattling trucks.
The hills of Freetown rise up ahead, lush and green from this side, dividing the city from the rest of the nation. Cloaked with cloud and rain fresh in the air we turn towards the coast at Waterloo, a town that reminds me of the Wild West somehow, one big bustling market that doesn’t quite spill across the whole road. From there it’s a high road along a broad ledge at the foot of the densely forested mountains, where wooded slopes spill towards the Atlantic below and beaches are glimpsed between palms.
Tokeh Sands has a smart reception and staff that are friendly and efficient. We have called ahead and our supper is waiting for us, barracuda freshly caught, smoky from the grill, served with a delicious tomato chutney and heaps of cous-cous. A squeeze of lime, ice cold beers. All of this seems exciting, exceptional.
The hut is basic – a room with a bed. A double plug socket, a fan. The fan is a nice touch. So is the porch where we sit and watch the rain fall whilst a gecko busily flits above us, protecting us from the mosquitoes. We sit up late watching the rain.
On Saturday morning the mountaintops are hidden by cloud that piles up and sinks down into the valleys before drifting out to sea. The air is fresh, crisp. The clouds have snuck into the hut overnight, too, everything is damp, misty and cool.
The rain has stopped and as we breakfast on spicy omelettes, black coffee and toast (toast!) the sun breaks through, dazzling against the sand.
Along the beach families are hauling in nets brimming with fish. It’s a slow process, hard work, the head of each family calling time in a low grunt as the whole family stands along the rope, gripping the line tightly and stepping backwards in time. One child sits at the top of the shore, in charge of coiling the net as it’s pulled in and as each person reaches the top of the beach they run back to the water’s edge and join the front of the line again. It takes a long time. Seeing my camera, they spot an opportunity. “Take snaps,” the father says, “And then you will give us some money”
“Ok,” I say, pleased. For the next fifteen minutes while they draw the line in, he breaks from calling time only to yell at me to take more pictures. “Snap! Snap!” He shouts, every time I take my finger off the shutter. I end up with a lot of pictures of people pulling a rope.
As the net nears the shore, more people join them until there are twenty or more men and boys hauling the net and finally, after an age, it appears out of the breakers, seething with the catch. Squid and place are dotted throughout the mass of small silvery fish. Sardines, I think, but I am not sure. The youngest children crowd around the net, pull the smallest fish free and make playthings of them on the beach.
“You are satisfied?” The father asks me.
“Yes,” I say, and clumsily give him too much money. I never know how much you should give. Along the beach there are lobsters, and further down still more nets are hauled in. I worry that a lot of the fish seem small. Wonder once again about how all of these expats and our taste for lobster and exotic fish is distorting not only the economy but also the ecology of this country. The grand Lebanese houses fringing the shore do little to quell these thoughts.
In the rush to develop I wonder how this picture perfect would-be paradise will fare.
In the opposite direction a crumbling colonial mansion emerges from the undergrowth. Nothing is ever knocked down here, it’s simply allowed to return to nature. Vines clamber up a spiral staircase, tree roots sprout from the walls. A tree peaks out of the uppermost rooms. There are a lot of ghosts here I think.
“They brought the boys here. To Tokeh,” Georgie says. “The child soldiers. They came here to detox from the drugs after the war. And they said, at night, for miles around, you could hear the screams of their nightmares as they remembered what they had done.”
Beyond this a broad overgrown avenue runs between what looks like two rows of holiday apartments, more recently abandoned, long grass and broken windows and a string of washing that says someone, at least, is still making it home. At the far end of the beach we reach river number 2, watch in silence for a while as it rolls lazily off the hazy mountains and meanders into a muddy estuary where a flock of white birds sit at the edge of the mangroves.
We cool off in the sea while a light shower passes over us, drifting in the shallows as the raindrops make fractal patterns in the calm water.
For supper there is more barracuda, drink cold beer and watch new arrivals showing up the resort. Play the game of guessing who they are, what they do. Tokeh has a relaxed and comfortable vibe. It’s not trying too hard to emulate anything else, like the garish facsimiles of the western world you see elsewhere, it is a simple concept, executed well. They are even relaxed when we somehow lock our keys in the hut, tell us to relax on the beach while they fix it. A ladder appears and a man tries to gain entry via the eaves of the hut. Hammers are required. Georgie and I cringe in embarrassment. Long poles are angled in through gaps and heads are scratched. These huts are secure. Another novelty. Then without warning the door bursts open and we gush with relief and gratitude, “How did you do it?”
“I’m not sure. Some small magic,” the manager says with a smile. We promise to take better care of the key.
Overnight it rains again.
Sunday finds us lounging on the beach, reading our books and watching the crabs skitter in the surf. Time slows to a crawl as the sun creeps higher in the sky. At lunchtime a man comes to take our order for food. I think we could stay here forever. But all too soon, Habib appears to take us home. Lunch first, we tell him. “No problem,” he grins.
And by the time we get back to Makeni, there are only 14 days til we come home.