Following Graham Greene to Liberia's sacred waterfall

A boy and girl stand in front of the sacred waterfall

While in Liberia for BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, presenter James Naughtie retraced the steps of novelist Graham Greene in search of a sacred site visited by only a handful of outsiders.

As we began to walk into the forest, I remembered that Graham Greene had 26 people to carry his luggage. All that and the pith helmet, the cigars and, I have no doubt, a good supply of refreshments.

We were ill-equipped, the headgear wasn't great, and it was very hot. We had nothing stronger than water with which to celebrate if we made it. But we were very excited indeed.

The idea had come from reading Journey Without Maps in which Greene told the story of his first African experience in 1935, walking into Liberia from Sierra Leone, where he later became a spy.

It was irresistible to try to touch one of the more intriguing destinations on his trek, and the waterfall was the perfect choice. Hidden, shrouded in tales of mysterious ritual, with the promise of a spectacular sight in the depths of the forest.

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We drew a blank in the town where Greene got his first lead, at a Methodist mission not far from the northern border with Guinea, but soon our local driver Sam, whose family came from these parts, managed to guide us through the chaotic market in the village of Zuluyi to the simple home of the village chief.

Today's 'adoption' of Liberia

The Today Programme has been focusing on issues affecting life in Liberia. James Naughtie is reporting every day this week from the West African state.

He was called Edwin, and sitting on wooden benches we spent a little time introducing ourselves and explaining our interest in the waterfall before asking for his help. He was willing, and within half an hour we were on our way to yet another village, picking up one of his acquaintances on the way.

We knew that the place was sacred and that according to Greene human sacrifices had occurred there until the 1920s.

The practice stopped when an unfortunate victim - chosen to be fed to a mythical 100ft long snake said to lurk in the river - managed to pull the village chief in with him as he was pushed into the torrent. They never did it again.

Within an hour or so, we'd assembled a gang of youngsters in the village - all of them friendly and eager to help - and were striding into the bush to the sound of machetes cutting away some of the foliage.

We learned about nasty stinging plants and other dangers but I, for one, was glad that no-one mentioned snakes. They and I don't generally get on.

The Methodist church at Ganta Mission Station

It was hot and steamy, but beautiful. Butterflies were everywhere and the sun made changing patterns in the trees. It's hill territory and we had some steep climbs, which were exhausting. But we were determined.

The moment when we first heard water was thrilling. My producer, Louisa, held up her hand: "Listen!" There it was, unmistakably. Falling water.

Greene's Journey Without Maps

Graham Greene recording for the BBC

In 1935 Graham Greene set off to discover Liberia, the West African republic founded for slaves released from the US. He trekked for 350 miles, becoming ill and having to be nursed by travelling companion, his cousin Barbara.

Africa specialist Tim Butcher, writing for History Today, said Greene acted as an agent for the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society, investigating claims Liberia's leaders were forcing people into labour. He later worked for MI6.

His travel tale, embroidered with observations on Liberian village life, politics and history, was published as Journey Without Maps in 1936. Barbara Greene also wrote an account, Land Benighted (Later renamed Too Late To Turn Back).

We scrambled on and found ourselves on flat rocks at the place where the small river through the forest disappeared over the edge. It was slippery and we were reluctant to look over the edge. So we started into the trees once more and got ourselves down by a roundabout route.

I'll long remember the sight when we pushed away the last branches and saw the waterfall. About 80ft high, I'd guess, it is beautiful rather than vast - a rushing stream that catches the light from an opening in the forest canopy and plunges into a pool where there were two people bathing, and from which, surprisingly, they produced a large basket of freshwater crabs.

We stretched out on the rocks, I collected a handful of pebbles, we enjoyed some moments of silence and after about half an hour set off for the village by another route.

By the time we got back, we were enjoying the exhilaration of having glimpsed the unknown. The locals told us they thought we were only the third outsiders to have seen the water, and the second since Greene.

We were reminded, I think, of the humility with which outsiders should approach Africa.

No doubt the thrill of "the heart of darkness" was part of that, but I hope it was more than the lure of the primitive. There is so much to learn; so much unknown; so much history to explore; so many attitudes to understand.

But it would be wrong to say that we didn't have some of the excitement of a boy's adventure story - sharpened by the knowledge that the writer and traveller Tim Butcher had failed to find the waterfall when he walked in Greene's footsteps. Better luck next time, we thought, and enjoyed the moment.

I'm just glad that we didn't run into snakes. That might have been embarrassing.

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