Basque Country, 2015

Photos from a recent trip to northern Spain.  First stop, Bilbao, where gentrifying ripples from the Guggenheim Museum haven’t quite reached the industrial carcasses downriver. Then south into the limestone peaks of Urkiola Natural Park.  And finally to beautiful San Sebastián, for life on the seafront.

Canon EOS 5D MkIII, Canon EF 35mm f2

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Jungle Island Tiwai – Sierra Leone 2014, Part 3

Tales of pygmy hippos and wild chimpanzees had lured me off Sierra Leone’s beaches to an island deep in the country’s eastern rainforest.

Four miles long and a mile wide, Tiwai splits the River Moa, forming a moated sanctuary for some of the planet’s rarest species. You can reach the Moa by 4×4, but I took the cheap option – a butt-clenching motorbike taxi ride along rust-red and increasingly unmade roads to a Mende village on the west bank.  From there, a local tribesman ferried me to Tiwai by canoe.

The island is uninhabited.  Its only buildings are a research station for scientists, and a small tourist camp – both staffed by locals from neighbouring villages.  Local rumour goes that the rainforest sounds in Avatar were recorded on Tiwai.  At night, as I lay sweating in a tent with crickets, cicadas, frogs and god knows what else going fortissimo all round me, I was prepared to believe it.

Days were spent lazing in a water’s-edge hammock watching the river’s oily eddies, or on guided excursions into the jungle.  It was the end of dry season and everything crunched.  We stepped over meandering buttress roots and streams of termites, their millions of tiny feet rain-like on the leaf litter.  Hornbills wheezed overhead.  Vultures and eagles nested messily in the high trees.

Our guide grabbed us to point out various species of monkey tumbling through the canopy and bolting across our path.  During the civil war, rebels stationed on the island ate many of its primates, including the endangered chimpanzees and red colobus monkeys. But with the island protected again, numbers there are bouncing back and Tiwai now has one of the highest concentrations and greatest diversities of primates in the world.

Despite this, and despite getting up wearily early for the purpose, we didn’t see a single chimpanzee.  Though we did discover where they use rocks to break open palm nuts – behaviour only seen in West African chimps.

Even more disappointing: not a whiff of pygmy hippo.  It’s estimated only three thousand remain in the whole of West Africa.  They’re also nocturnal and incredibly shy and I was only on Tiwai three nights, so maybe I’d have been lucky… and it’s a great excuse to go back.

Photos: Rolleiflex SL35, Rollei Planar 50mm f1.8, Schneider Kreuznach 35mm f2.8, Kodak Tri X 400 developed in Kodak XTOL, 9 mins at 20 degrees

Ghost Hotel – Sierra Leone 2014, Part 2

I stumbled on this strange relic of Sierra Leone’s civil war while walking along the stunning beach at Tokeh on the Freetown Peninsular.  Entering the compound, two large, white, decaying buildings stretched away from me and, since nothing was stopping me going inside, I crunched around their empty rooms on a fine layer of gritty dust, trying to work out where I was.

There were small rooms with fans that looked like they’d never spun, hexagonal outhouses with red-tiled roofs and a giant hall with adjoining box-rooms, separated by one-way mirrors.  A group of kids ran through at one point, not really paying me much attention.  Then I saw a group of men sitting under a tree eating mangos in what must have been intended as a garden.  One of them, Foday (pictured), was keen to show me around.  He fetched keys for the locked areas, and told me the ghost resort’s history.

In the 1980s, Tokeh was a playground for the French elite.  Super-rich holidaymakers would fly to Lungi Airport, then catch a helicopter to Tokeh’s grand Africana hotel and enjoy one of West Africa’s best beaches in pampered luxury. The resort became a meeting place for bankers from all over Africa and Europe.  But that all stopped when civil war erupted in 1991.

During the conflict, AK-toting RUF rebels marched up the Freetown Peninsular, en route to the capital.  They got as far as the river that bisects the beach at River Number Two, but didn’t dare cross, fearing quicksand in the shallow channel, so pulled back to the Africana.  They stayed for a while, then left to find an alternative route north and burned the hotel to the ground.

The war ended in 2002.  By 2007, peace was firmly established and the country was recovering, so in a bid to bring the wealthy back to Tokeh, the Central Bank of Sierra Leone built the conference resort I was exploring with Foday.  They finished it to a high standard: en-suite bathrooms, breakout areas, tree-shaded gardens, ornamental walls and an archway leading to Tokeh’s world-class beach. But Sierra Leone’s name was now synonymous with drugged child soldiers, rape, mutilation and blood diamonds and no one wanted to come.

The centre has never been used.  The toilets still have their cellophane wrappers on, the walls are crumbling, pieces of roof litter the ground and the bathroom fittings are slowly rusting in the sea air.  Foday wishes it would wake up – a job serving bankers would pay orders of magnitude more than the pittance he and his friends get for guarding the site.  With Sierra Leone shaking off its association with war, the economy booming and tourists returning to new hotels just along the beach, it all seemed possible.  But that was in April.  Now, tragically, Sierra Leone’s name is associated with another indiscriminate killer and Tokeh’s prospects as an elite paradise have been set back once again.

Rolleiflex SL35, Rollei Planar 50mm f1.8, Schneider Kreuznach 35mm f2.8, Kodak Tri X 400 developed in Kodak XTOL, 9 mins at 20 degrees

Freetown Peninsula – Sierra Leone 2014, Part 1

Rolleiflex SL35
Rollei Planar 50mm f1.8
Schneider Kreuznach 35mm f2.8

Kodak Tri X 400 developed in Kodak XTOL
9 mins at 20 degrees