All you need to know to conquer the Western Area’s most challenging hike
Picket Hill is not a hill, but the highest mountain in the Western Area Peninsula, the region where Freetown and many of Salone’s finest beaches are located. It is ideal for those who fancy a test of humanity and can keep on marching to the sweet promise of a stunning view.
This 880 meter high mountain is located right in the middle of the Western Area Peninsula Forest, a 17.000 acres large national park that stretches along the mountains and the coast. There are two routes that will lead to the top; from Koba Wata and from Big Wata, both at opposite sides of the peninsula. To cross from one end of the other leaves you with a 14k hike that can last between 6 and 8 hours total.
Starting off at either Koba Wata or Big Wata, the hike follows the former trade routes that date back to the fifteenth century. In fact, from Koba Wata up to Masophe, the route follows the development of Koba Wata. The original villagers had settled deep into the forest, moving further down due to land exhaustion. The only thing hinting towards the existence of these former settlements are rusty information boards with faded names and descriptions.
The 3,5 hour ascent goes along a narrow, rocky trail through varying landscapes. At times the path is clear, and moving through the forest comes with ease. And at other times, well, less easy. Expect to use your hands and feet to climb slippery rocks, avoid vines hanging from massive trees and ward off swaying twigs as the local guide slashes his way through dense greenery.
Sounds gnarly? It is somewhat. But after a good hour of hiking something quite magnificent happens. The senses turn sharper and the many greens of the forest become more vivid, the bird-cries have more clarity, and respect for the locals grow as you find out that some people walk this trail a couple of times a week.
Why? To avoid the official routes. After some time of dense foliage, a clearing offers two dramatic views. One shows the top of Picket Hill in the distance- seeming impossibly steep. The other shows a valley where a local specialty is being cultivated. A green specialty whose aroma’s might remind the naughtier traveler of certain shops in Amsterdam. A secret trade, strangely juxtaposed against the tranquil surroundings.
Oh, how satisfying after such exercise. Wide and majestic, the peninsula shows off all its tricks in a dramatic play of mountain, sea, city and river. Massive black rocks with flowers growing in between cracks offer the perfect picnic location. Muscles warming in the afternoon sun whilst the wind is the only sound to be heard.
It takes a 45 minute drive, a 3,5 hour hike and steady determination to leave behind the bustling city and instead indulge in forest tranquility topped with an astonishing view. This is where Sierra Leone gains advantage; having mountains drop into the sea is unique. To add to that, the complete desolation during this hike shows that these trails are unexplored by tourists. You’ll be one of few who can say. “I conquered Picket Hill.”
– From Kob Wata to the top takes approx 3.5 hours including breaks
– From the top to Big Wata takes about 3 hours
– Starting the other way around means a longer ascend and shorter descent; the distance from the top to Big Wata is longer than from the top to Kob Wata
– Be aware that during and after the rainy season there is a point near Big Wata where you cross through a river. Yes, indeed, no bridge, but the local guide who might carry you across. You might get wet.
– The hike is safe from late September until May, when rainy season starts. View is best just after rainy season and before Harmattan starts in January.
– Break proper hiking gear; sturdy shoes with grip and long sleeves
– Wear a hat or a scarf to protect you from the sun, especially at the peak where there is no shade
– Bring plenty of water (3 l), food and snacks
– Start off early, the hike takes about 7 hours, and returning when the sun is down is not recommended. 8am is a perfect starting time.
– Minimise damage; collect your litter and avoid interfering with nature
– Drink alcohol the evening before setting off
– Ignore the guide’s instructions, the forest is protected and some parts can be dangerous
– Bring a bad mood
– Wear trainers with little grip; some parts are very slippery and these shoes will not do
– Underestimate the hike
– Do this if you are having a running stomach, even a mild one, or any other symptoms of disease
– Go off the trail; no phone reception at most area’s, no one can find you if you get lost