Adventures in Sierra Leone
Unspoilt beaches and stunning scenery are only part of the story
It might have been a box-office hit, but Leo di Caprio’s Blood Diamonds cut a deep scar on Sierra Leone’s international reputation. The savage civil war ended 10 years ago and the country is still associated with unethical diamond mining and child soldiers.
As a result, tourists have stayed away – last year the country had just 4,000 international visitors compared to about 100,000 in nearby Gambia.
But things are changing. The country is politically stable, and for anyone in search of that rare experience of going to an undiscovered land which counts some of the world’s most spectacular beaches, national park safaris and amazing seafood, it is time to consider Sierra Leone as a holiday destination. You won’t get luxury accommodation and you will have to plan everything right down to the last dollar you will spend in advance, but in exchange you will get to see a land unspoilt by tourism with not a McDonald’s or a Starbucks in sight.
The 400km of unspoilt coastline is the country’s biggest tourist attraction. Landing in Lungi airport across the bay from the capital Freetown (once known as the Athens of Africa), it doesn’t take long to find the first beach stop that photographs like paradise.
Freetown is a sprawling, dilapidated town spread like a necklace around the bay and into the hills. Unless you are one of the thousands of aid workers who need to settle here, it’s probably only worth a night’s stay.
Just 40 minutes south is Lakka beach, a long, calm cove of white sands with basic but charming accommodation that would make a great first or second night in the country. It is billed as a resort, but it is undeveloped, with a few guest houses (expect to pay about €25 off season) complete with sunbeds, straw umbrellas and hosts who will fetch fresh lobster out of the sea for a scrumptious €15 dinner).
Further along the coast is River Number Two, one of the world’s most famous beaches. Here, palm-clad mountains sweep down to pristine white sands that were the setting for a Bounty bar “taste of paradise” advert in the 1970s.
Next door is Tokeh beach, another deserted paradise, more sheltered than its neighbours but with aspirations to be the Vegas of west Africa with the newly opened hotel The Place. In a country where the average wage is $1.25 a day, the $750 a room price tag seems obscene.
The resort is aimed at wealthy expats and the burgeoning mining community, many of whom work in compounds on month-long shifts north of Freetown, extracting iron ore and other minerals for the Chinese. The sight of an 85-carriage freight train travelling down the single track towards Freetown reflects the returning investment.
But a few nights in Tokeh beach needn’t break the bank – for the independent traveller there are alternatives, with beach huts and bungalows for between $60 and $170 a night (more on this later),
Banana Islands, off the coast of Freetown, are the place to get a first-hand sense of the slave trade that sadly defined this country’s history. On Dublin Island you can check out the slave hole (where weak and dead slaves were thrown into a deep mass grave); on the more developed Bunce Island you can explore the 17th-century fortress, a notorious collection point for slaves – the Gullah people of South Carolina are thought to have come from here.
Sierra Leone’s best kept secret is its game fishing: it boasts some of the most spectacular opportunities for landing the big one this side of Miami with barracuda, grouper, giant mackerel and marlin all in plentiful supply.
Bonthe, to the south, was one of the first towns outside Freetown to be captured by settlers and fishing is now the main occupation of its people.
Joy Samake, the owner of a classy restaurant in Freetown frequented by ambassadors, well-heeled locals and aid workers, also runs the Bonthe Holiday Village. She says some of the world’s largest tarpons have been caught by her guests in this compound set in a tropical garden under ancient mango trees offering six air-conditioned bungalows which she describes as “unpretentious”.
Because of the war, wildlife inland isn’t plentiful but 300km inland from Freetown lies the Outamba Kilimi National Park, a magical savanna between rivers where visitors can spot rare elephants, buffaloes, pygmy hippos, leopards and colobus monkeys. It also boasts an incredible 220 species of bird, some of which – such as the wintering plover, heron and egret – will be familiar to ornithologists in the northern hemisphere.
There is a well-organised camp with rudimentary but decent facilities for visitors, including tented accommodation, cooking facilities and a visitor centre.
In a country that ranks as the eighth poorest in the world, the price of hotels is a shock. Lowering your expectations regarding service and facilities is part of the adventure. With electricity supply irregular, hotels have to pay for their own generators. The country’s tourist facilities are improving all the time, with a Radisson about to open in Freetown and a Hilton promised.
“It has huge potential for tourism,” said the Irish charge d’affaires Sinéad Walsh. “It’s an absolutely stunning country with very little crime compared to Nairobi. It’s opening new things all the time, new trails in the mountains, there are lots of incredible beaches and it’s incredibly unexploited and undiscovered.”
One of the most talked-about developments among the many Europeans I met on my trip is the eco-tourism initiative on John Obey’s Beach, run by Tribewanted, which pioneered a similar scheme in Fiji and in Umbria where volunteers work with local partners to build a sustainable business which is eventually handed over to the community. Its mission, it says, is to provide “an unforgettable west African beach holiday and help change the perception of Sierra Leone into one that reflects the reality – a beautiful, safe and captivating country.”
Guests can camp out on the beach, grab an earth-bagged dome, or lounge in timber beach bungalows by the lagoon.
Sierra Leone is not for the faint-hearted but it is a gentle place, where English is spoken, with none of the menace or grabbiness of more developed neighbours such as the Gambia. For anyone ready for its challenges, Sweet Salone, as it is affectionately known locally, will offer an unforgettable African experience.