Redemption Beach, Monrovia, Liberia

A beautiful late-afternoon light illuminates Redemption Beach, diffused by the salted atmosphere carried on the sea breeze. Today, a passing storm front muted that light, though, between breaking clouds, a few seconds radiance poured over the landscape.

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The sand beach is carved into soccer pitches, at least three back to back along this 3/4 mile of beach. Local teams play on weekend afternoons while families stroll newly constructed Redemption Road. The Liberian Executive Mansion, under restoration and framed by construction cranes, rises above the hill overlooking the sea.

In 1980, Redemption Beach was the site of the firing squad executions of 13 Cabinet Ministers and elder brother of assassinated Liberian President William Tolbert. The coup d’etat happened under command of Sergeant Samuel Doe, who went on to seize power, becoming President of Liberia.

Renovation comes slowly to Liberia, being devastated by two civil wars and an Ebola outbreak. Public spaces are few, but much appreciated, as is Redemption Beach.

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flock of starlings

Splendid glossy starlings. Metallic green, bottle blue, purple grape. An unruly flock invaded the bean tree, a dissonant cacophony of squeaking, rasping, priming-the-pump clamor. They are animated, looking nervous all about, shifting through the branches before the birds break in a clutter toward the sky, soon to agree on a course and are gone.

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Liberia’s chimpanzee rescue

Baby chimpanzee, under the care of Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue.

Baby chimpanzee, under the care of Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue.

Chimpanzee recovering from years of testing and trauma.

Chimpanzee recovering from years of testing and trauma.

The Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue, near Charlesville, Liberia, is improving the quality of life for more that 60 chimpanzees abandoned by New York Blood Center after nearly 30 years of invasive research and testing. The Humane Society of the United States, together with Humane Society International, are working closely with the government of Liberia and other organizations to provide care for the traumatized chimpanzees after they were abandoned. Many of these chimpanzees were born at the original research center, which operated for 30 years from the present location of today’s Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue compound.

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A team from Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue prepares to feed chimpanzees on one of several islands.

The chimpanzees are living out their remaining years on several islands along an expanse of rivers and lagoons near the Atlantic coast south of Monrovia. Chimpanzees cannot swim, which allows their confinement on the islands to be cage-free. The islands are not large enough to support the chimpanzees without providing additional food and fresh water, therefore, a team from Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue collects food from farmers and organizations throughout Liberia. These foods, some donated and others purchased, include bananas, pineapples, papayas, riceballs, greens and other locally-grown fruits and vegetables. This diet is prepared and distributed to the chimpanzees on a daily basis. Their menu is balanced and managed by Jim Desmond, the veterinarian leading the rescue effort. Included in their diet are contraceptives, in the hope of managing this population without adding additional burden to the limited resources.

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Jim Desmond and team work with orphaned baby chimpanzees confiscated by Liberia’s Forest Development Authority.

The Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue also provides sanctuary for infant chimpanzees orphaned by the bush-meat trade. Approximately 7000 wild chimpanzees live in the forests throughout Liberia. The chimpanzee mothers and family members were likely killed (illegally, as they are a protected species) to supply bush-meat markets. The infants, most too small to butcher, are often funneled into exotic pet-trade markets.  In light of their dire circumstances, the few fortunate enough to be confiscated by Liberia’s Forest Development Authority have been brought to the Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue, where they are being integrated into a sanctuary family. Jenny Desmond is the constant caregiver for the frightened, often dehydrated and starving infant chimpanzees brought to Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue. Eventually, they are introduced to their new sanctuary family. There is hope that perhaps one day in the future, chimpanzees rescued from the bushmeat and exotic pet-trade will have a chance to be reintroduced back into their natural habitat.

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More information can be found on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/abandonedchimps

and an opportunity to help, please, at www.gofundme.com/abandonedchimps

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flora and fauna, Sapo National Park, Liberia

Diana monkey in the canopy of Sapo National Park.

Diana monkey in the canopy of Sapo National Park.

We could hear a rustling in the leaves high above our heads, the thick canopy hiding whatever activity was capturing our curiosity. The soft trill and chirping indicated to Thomas that this was a troop of Diana monkeys feeding through the canopy. Thomas, our lead guide, quietly led us off-trail in the direction of the troop. Here and there branches tossed and swooshed as monkeys leapt from limb to limb, trilling and chattering back and forth. We were nearly under them when all went silent, then, abruptly, the male called out a bark warning that we were discovered. The troop wasted no time scuttling through the canopy, occasionally catching the sunlight as they fled, the sun revealing a striking white, gray and russet pelage.

Sapo_8363_DKorteThe trees and landscape of Sapo National Park are nothing short of impressive. This tropical rainforest comprises approximately 42% of the remaining Upper Guinean Forest and is the second-largest area of tropical rainforest in West Africa. The fairy-tale landscape, where trees can grow to a height of 70 meters, contains ancient Sacoglottis, with buttresses spreading over 4 meters diameter. The red ironwood tree, Ekki, growing straight and tall to a height of 30 to 50 meters, its trunk up to 2 meters diameter. These durable hardwood trees have been used as bridge supports across many streams in Liberia, their rot and insect resistant qualities noted. Strangler figs weave a network of constricting vines around some trees, gradually killing their host while climbing up to breach the canopy.  Uapaca trees are plentiful and easy to spot, with branching stilt roots looking like a reverse tree crown. The roots provide a wide stance for the tree to stabilize in seasonally-flooded parts of the forest. Other forest giants I am slowly identifying punctuate the forest trails throughout the park.

Strangler fig.

Strangler fig.

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Black and white colobus monkey.

Hiding among spreading tree buttresses along the trail, a duiker darts into the forest as we approach. We follow slowly, trying for another sighting and come across a troop of black and white colobus monkeys picking leaves in the canopy. They are not yet aware of us so we stop in the shadows while they graze among the branches until we are discovered. In a flurry they are gone, traveling swiftly through the canopy.

As we return to the trail I hear a crashing through the leaf litter behind me. Thinking it is Kollie, our second guide, running to catch us, I turn to see a pair of zebra duikers bearing down. Their sprint carries them between myself and Lisa, nearly running into Lisa as they careen past. Racing through a patch of sunlight, the nearest is illuminated for a brief moment, revealing a striking animal with rich golden flanks crossed by a set of dark brown vertical stripes. This duiker, the size of a small goat, looks as surprised as the rest of us.

Collecting water from a freshwater stream in the park.

Collecting water from a freshwater stream in the park.

A rewarding day in the forest, the trees, monkeys and duikers provided a memorable experience. Some faded tracks of pygmy hippos and elephants hint at what else calls this forest home, and beckons us to return another time.

Tree supported by spreading fin-buttresses.

Tree supported by spreading fin-buttresses.

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night, Sapo National Park, Liberia

Returning to camp at the end of a day in the forest.

Returning to camp at the end of a day in the forest.

Darkness has barely settled over the forest, the last of the hornbills crying above the deep shadows. A cricket chorus keeps the encroaching night silence at bay while katydids add a whirr like squeaking tricycles high in the treetops. A few dawdling fireflies appear at the edge of the clearing, maybe drawn to the smoldering embers of a dying fire. They circle about in traces of smoke, then whisk into the heavens like errant stars in a vaporous night sky.

Sleeping is fitful, the tent stuffy and hot, my campmat offering little cushion against the solid hardwood floor. I awaken at the slightest sound. A trill far off in the forest, probably a bushbaby. These little primates, galagos, scramble like acrobats through the forest understory in search of insects, their large eyes and oversized ears giving a resemblance to alien squirrels. A stick breaks nearby, and I am awake to ponder that mystery. Something lands on the zinc roof and scuttles to the edge. Before dawn a shriek pierces the darkness coming from deep forest. The shrieking continues, growing louder as if approaching camp. We decide it is likely a tree hyrax, a small rabbit-sized creature that spends most of its life climbing through trees, eating fruits, leaves and twigs. Their haunting cries and screams are the soundtrack of nightmares.

Day breaks in Sapo as a pair of Yellow-billed turacos alight in the canopy above camp.

Day breaks in Sapo as a pair of Yellow-billed turacos alight in the canopy above camp.

Sunrise, hidden by forest, is announced by a flock of turacos settling into the canopy. Yellow-billed turacos. Their crowing laughter at first light greets the morning, first one, then another, then many birds from throughout the forest take up the call and response. These green and blue birds are difficult to spot high in the forest canopy until they take flight, the iridescent red of their wingtips flashing through the trees. They leap and run in the uppermost branches of the forest in search of insects.

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rain, Sapo National Park, Liberia

Rain in the forest.

Rain in the forest.

A drop on my arm. A tap among leaves. Beneath the forest crown, flashes of light drop from the sky, shooting stars streaking from the canopy, popping, slapping to mist in the vegetation.

Kollie, one of our guides, listens to the forest at the end of a rain.

Kollie, one of our guides, listens to the forest at the end of a rain.

A shshsh of apprehension grows with intensity as the light softens and fades, darkening into a diffused gauze. Leaves shudder beneath a crescendo of rain, reflecting delicate shimmers from a fragmented sky.

Light rain over a stream in the forest.

Light rain over a stream in the forest.

We have taken shelter beneath a towering Sacoglottis. The musky smells of decaying leaves and dropped fruits stir to life on wisps of battered air. The earth exhales while we wait for the shower to end.

Lisa on a trail through the park.

Lisa on a trail through the park.

Fifteen minutes, and the dry-season squall leaves us in a forest freshened, the constant plink of water slowly retreating. Far in some distant tree-theater, a pair of hornbills duet an evening serenade as we make our way along a trail on our return to camp.

Looking up into the canopy of the rainforest.

Looking up into the canopy of the rainforest.

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visit to Sapo National Park, Liberia

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A trek in one of the most remote and unspoiled rainforests in West Africa takes careful planning. Lisa and I made a plan to spend three days hiking beneath the canopy of the towering tropical rainforest in Sapo National Park. The park is located in south central Liberia, approximately 60 kilometers inland from Greenville. Greenville is the largest nearby city (Buchanan, at 197 kilometers from the park, is larger but farther away). From Mamba Point, Monrovia, the distance to the park is close to 330 kilometers. After Buchanan, the road is laterite and clay of varying degrees of maintenance. Near Buchanan it is possible to gain speeds of 50 kilometers per hour between villages. By the time you reach Rivercess county, the rolling hills and narrow bridges degrade the roadway and speeds will be reduced even in good weather. Low washes tend to soften and erode the surface, creating treacherous potholes. Villages may have numerous speed bumps to slow traffic. Overall, the roads are in decent condition for March, though isolated rainstorms can pool water in the lower, swampier sections of the roadway. All bets are off during the rainy season, and the park is generally not taking visitors during the worst months of the rainy season. There are checkpoints along the way, and the policemen seem friendly enough to direct your travels.

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Thomas leads us through a stand of Uapaca trees in a swamp forest of Sapo National Park.

Before leaving Monrovia, it is necessary to fill out proper forms and pay fees to the Forestry Development Authority. They are located heading towards Kakata from Redlight (Somalia drive) a few kilometers past the Coca Cola bottling plant. The turn is one intersection past Weintown Drive. Turn left onto FDA Drive (look for a concrete arch with the words “Forestry Development Authority”) and proceed along a pot-holed track leading to Mount Barclay. Forestry Development Authority is 1.5 kilometers from the arch to the top of the hill. Contact Jerry 07764 62564, or 08864 62564, or his secretary Peaches 08865 38592, or 07709 17233, to make an appointment. They should produce the paperwork including the fees schedule (prices vary from fee schedule, in some cases) and the indemnity clause for you to sign and pay. Fees are assessed differently for Nationals and non-Nationals, and generally are less by 50% for Nationals than what is listed here for non-Nationals. Fees include park entry, per person of USD $10. Hiking is $5 per person, per day. Vehicle fee to access the park headquarters is $25 per vehicle. Note that you cannot drive to, or into the park. It is approximately 3 kilometers of walking from park headquarters office following a  footpath to reach the river bordering the park. The fee to photograph (commercially) in the park is $200 for up to three days, though it is unclear if personal photography is fee-based. Be prepared to discuss this issue. Obtain a receipt for your payments, to present when you arrive at park headquarters.

A kite passes a canopy break along the Sinoe River, marking the western border of the park.

A kite passes a canopy break along the Sinoe River, marking the western border of the park.

Our plan was to spend a night in Greenville. We made a reservation with Moses Banks at 08867 00812 to stay at the Mississippi Guest House, just after the Total Gas Station on Tubman Street entering Greenville. Our clean room had air conditioning, running water, electricity 7pm to 7am, for $50. The travel time from Monrovia was eight hours. We had dinner (fish and rice) at the Forum Restaurant downtown, as the other restaurant, the Mississippi Blues Pub, was without power and not cooking. It is wise to fill your vehicle at Total before leaving Greenville, for there is not a proper gas station between Greenville and the park. A full tank should take you from Greenville to the park and back to Monrovia. Be aware that phone service will be limited to nonexistent as you approach the park. Lonestar was the choice of the guides. We had no Cellcom signal.

Before arriving at the park, it is possible to see wildlife like soaring eagles, hornbills, mongooses crossing the road, or these two Great blue turacos, feeding near a plantation.

Before arriving at the park, it is possible to see wildlife like soaring eagles, hornbills, mongooses, or these two Great blue turacos, seen feeding near a plantation.

Once you reach the park, there are more fees. Passing through the nearest village, Jalay Town, we were welcomed by a traditional celebration of dance and singing, and several small donations were encouraged before we were allowed to continue through the village. Someone will direct you to the park headquarters. When you arrive, your guides will be chosen, and camping fees assessed. We were assigned three guides, two to accompany us on our forest treks, and one to maintain our camp. Guides are paid $5 per day, and camping is $5 per night. In addition, you will be expected to provide not only your own food, but the food for the guides. It is possible to give the guides money ($10 to $20, total) to purchase their own food, as rice, fish and peppers may be available in Jalay Town. If provisions aren’t available, you may have to drive to the next village, or, planning ahead, arrive prepared. Having rice and dried fish, local peppers, and something like “arome” seasoning with you when you arrive will save time and scrambling for supply.

Uapaca trees are supported by stilt roots in Sapo National Park.

Uapaca trees are supported by stilt roots in Sapo National Park.

Because of the challenging logistics of getting in and out of Sapo Park, a day-trip is not very practical and will not allow enough time for a forest experience. Planning a minimum stay of two nights will give you a better experience.

Kollie crosses a small ravine near the Sinoe River.

Kollie crosses a small ravine near the Sinoe River.

The guides will help you carry your provisions, but may not have a spare backpack, so if you can provide that, it will be useful. Leaving your car at park headquarters, begin your walk back through Jalay Town, stopping to meet the village chief and elders. They impart a blessing (also for a donation) for your journey. It is approximately a one-hour walk to the river, then a canoe will take you across to the park. The canoe is $10 roundtrip. Once across the river, you begin your trek into the forest and a thirty to forty-minute walk will bring you to a clearing in the forest, Vera Camp.

Vera Camp, in the park, is the base of hiking adventures in Sapo.

Vera Camp, in the park, is the base of hiking adventures in Sapo.

Vera Camp has a wooden house built several years ago as a research facility and is now used as an elevated tent platform. There are two interior rooms for sleeping. Having a tent to keep out mosquitos and other critters, and a camping mattress will make the hard wood floors slightly more comfortable. There are no beds, and no running water at the site. Camping gear like headlamps, candles, eating utensils, toilet paper, and rope will be useful. Cooking is done over a campfire, and we were able to have water from a nearby stream heated for soup and hot drinks, and canned foods (or pasta noodles, rice, etc.) warmed in a pot over the fire. Simplicity in food preparation is key, as there is one fire, limited cooking pots, and most of the day will be spent away from camp. Bathing is done in a nearby stream and is crucial at the end of a hot, sweaty day of trekking in the heat and humidity of the jungle. We brought bottled water, a minimum 1.5 liters per person, per day, and relied on boiled water from the nearby stream for cooking and hot drinks. A short walk into the forest from camp is a simple pit-drop toilet. Bring your own toiletries.

We had few problems with insects, and saw very few mosquitos. There are likely to be some bees and biting flies, depending on the season. There may be a few ticks in the forest, and it would therefore be wise to spray your shoes and pants with an insect repellent. Here and there you may encounter great ant migrations crossing the trails. Walking into one of these ant carpets will divert their migration onto your legs. You will know the true meaning of ants in your pants. Paying attention to the guides, and to where you put your feet, is always a good idea.

Sapo_8514_DKortePhotoOur guides were very knowledgable about animals and trees in the forest. Observing wildlife will depend on whether animals are in the vicinity, and also will depend on how much noise you make in the forest. Talking and clomping through dry leaves will inform the animals that you are coming and they will hide from you. Whispering, walking quietly, and stopping often to listen to the forest sounds will help to identify if there are animals present. Wearing proper clothing (blacks, browns, dark greens) is advised to blend in to the environment. If you discuss your hopes and expectations with the guides before entering the forest, they will be most helpful to give you a meaningful experience. We were able to observe Diana monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, a mystery duiker, zebra duikers, and squirrels. We heard galagos and tree hyraxes in the night. There are many birds to hear and see, including turacos, hornbills, owls, eagles, and flocks of small birds feeding through the trees.

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Kollie spots a hornbill in the canopy above.

Kollie spots a hornbill in the canopy above.

If you expect to see chimpanzees, pygmy hippos, elephants, and leopards, you will likely be disappointed. Though these animals live in the park, years of hunting, mining, and other encroachments have taught them to stay out of sight. The guides are skilled in recognizing the tracks of many of the animals in the park, and during our treks, we discovered tracks of pygmy hippopotami and elephants. And of course, there is always the possibility of a surprise appearance. Keep your eyes and ears open!

Lisa crosses a break in the forest created by a treefall.

Lisa crosses a break in the forest created by a treefall.

Walking beneath ancient towering trees, listening to the chatter of monkeys in the canopy, the smell of lush vegetation, watching giant hornbills sail overhead, waking to the trill of galagos in the night, or the crowing of turacos at sunrise, these are forest experiences that are waiting for you at Sapo National Park. Bring all of your senses.

Lisa, Thomas, Kollie. Sapo National Park.

Lisa, Thomas, Kollie. Sapo National Park.

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Humpback whale

The thump under the boat focussed attention, a not-so-subtle reminder that we were at least eight miles from land. To the east,  or what I thought was east in a featureless ocean, no rocks, no land whatsoever that might resemble Mamba Point. According to Captain Flash, the pilot of our fishing adventure, we had long ago passed over the continental shelf, and were trolling in waters as deep as 900 meters. We had spotted the whale 200 meters before us and were making our way for a closer look. She dived as we approached to within 50 meters, and as we scanned the waves searching for her next breach, she surprised us with the bump from below. I don’t think a whale could capsize this boat, but I’m no expert on whales, or boats.

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The hulk of the Humpback whale rolled to the surface alongside the boat, perhaps to better gauge our intentions, then submerged again, finally resurfacing behind us at 100 meters as we slowly pulled away.

According to Captain Flash, perhaps she was warning us away from her calf.

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Bobby, Arthington, Liberia

Bobby. Works the small pig farm for the town of Arthington, Liberia. Tends a beautiful garden of peppers, bitterball, eggplants, pineapples. Proud of what he has made of his life. A soul connected.

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Decoration Day, Arthington, Liberia

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Decoration Day repainting.

March 8, 2016  The second Wednesday of March is a National Holiday, Decoration Day, to spend with those who have left this world. Lisa and I made a plan to celebrate this day in Arthington, a small town in Montserrado County some 34 bumpy kilometers from Monrovia. We leave the paved road after 12 kilometers to tackle a dusty, potholed track upcountry, following generally the north bank of the St. Paul River. Doubtful this road will be dependable during the rainy season as it appears the low-lying countryside will flood as it drains to the river.

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Abandoned house in Arthington.

Our friends have left earlier by bush taxi, and we meet them at the gravesite of relatives deceased, where vegetation has been cleared away and a fresh coat of blue paint brightens the occasion.

Aunts, uncles and friends have come together to celebrate this day. A walk down Main Street takes us past abandoned concrete shells of former homes, mud-brick homes with tin roofings, a clinic, schoolyard, guesthouse, and on to a Baptist Church roofless under a beautiful sky, the bell over the entry silent since its demise during the civil war. Arthington is the hometown of former President Charles Taylor, presently serving time in a UK prison for war crimes. His compound, stark concrete walls now overgrown by the bush, hardly recognizable as we pass by.

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Baptist church constructed during Charles Taylor’s reign reduced to a concrete shell.

We visit a new development in the town, a pig farm, where uncle Bobby tends to the pigs and proudly shows off his garden of peppers, bitterballs, pineapples and eggplants out back.

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The afternoon is sweltering beneath the sun, and we stop for refreshments at Auntie Sweeties before beginning our adventure back to Monrovia.

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Uncle Bobby at the pig farm.

 

 

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Black pig.

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Houmou at the Baptist church.

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Liberian family, Arthington.

Chairful of fun at Auntie Sweeties.

Chairful of fun at Auntie Sweeties.

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