Beautiful Sierra Leone is starting to attract adventurous travellers, reports Clemency Burton-Hill
IF I were writing of Freetown now, how unnaturally rosy would my picture be, for I begin to remember mainly the sunsets when all the laterite paths turned suddenly for a few minutes the colour of a rose, the old slavers’ fort with the cannon lying in the grass, the abandoned railway track with the chickens pecking in and out of the little rotting station, the taste of the first pink gin at six o’clock. I have begun to forget what the visitor noticed so clearly: the squalor.’’ Graham Greene, preface to second edition: Journey Without Maps (1946).
More than 70 years later, Greene’s words remain true in many ways. On reaching Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, it is still invariably the squalor the first-time visitor notices: the poverty, the scarcity of paved roads, the absence of infrastructure, all the unfortunate things that earn the country its place at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index.
Yet, before long, anybody who ventures to this blighted land will also begin to sense the magic that Greene recalls: a magic born of light and history and some ineffable, inexplicable beauty of place. With sweeping stretches of perfect white sand nudging the sparkling warm waters of the equatorial Atlantic, and dramatic topography stretching up to Mt Bintumani, it is not hard to see why Sierra Leone was considered the jewel in colonial Britain’s West African crown, and why foreign dignitaries and tourists alike once holidayed here in droves.
But after a brutal civil war sparked by years of misgovernment and economic decline in 1991, it is also easy to see why those same tourists abandoned it when things turned nasty, diverting north to the Gambia or rejecting the restless West African coast altogether. Even now, six years after the long decade of chaos wrought by the Revolutionary United Front ended and Sierra Leone emerged into a peace that holds ever stronger, many people assume it must still be a lawless place where hands are chopped off and AK47-toting rebels hang out on street corners.
In fact, Sierra Leone is a tranquil and beautiful place. Freetown is one of Africa’s safest capitals: the country recently underwent peaceful, free and fair democratic elections that resulted in the smooth transition to power of the opposition party. The main hazard facing any tourist is probably malaria rather than crazed machetewielding child soldiers. Along the Sierra Leone peninsula, construction and development is taking place: a sure sign of a hopeful future.
Having visited Freetown several times for work and been struck by its beauty and its disarmingly friendly people, I am tempted into holidaying there when a friend invites me to go island-hopping. Sierra Leone’s 400km of pristine coastline is dotted with islands: Sherbro is the biggest; the three Banana Islands lie just across from Freetown; Bunce Island, in Freetown’s vast natural harbour, is the most developed; and the Turtle Islands are the most unspoiled and home to several fishing communities. Although travelling in Sierra Leone is not for the faint-hearted, it is an experience I would recommend, and repeat, in a heartbeat.
Where else can you stroll along 5km of deserted, beautiful beach in the middle of a capital city? Where else can you pitch up on a totally unspoiled tropical island and ask the chief for a bed, waking at sunrise the next morning to fish for black marlin or tarpon? Where else can you canoe alongside pygmy hippos in lush forest with the sounds of endangered Gola Malimbe birds in your ears? Where else can you sit around in the evening and talk to people in the world’s poorest country who, beaming at you, will shake their heads and insist: ‘‘ Sierra Leone isn’t poor.’’ In these moments — sun setting, waves crashing, fish grilling, hospitality extended — it’s hard not to agree with them. In these moments, Sierra Leone feels rich indeed.
Although there will one day be much to see of interest across the country, from the Outamba-Kilimi National Park in the northwest to the diamond regions of the southeast, for the time being the best way to start exploring the country is to base yourself in the capital and head out to the islands. Getting into Freetown is part of the adventure. Commercial airlines fly into Lungi, which is separated from the capital by the Sierra Leone River, and the options for crossing are by ferry (which is cheap but takes about an hour) or helicopter, which takes seven minutes and is well worth the cost.
Many flights arrive at night, which can be quite dramatic. Freetown is not a city of bountiful electricity but, nevertheless, the scattered lights that twinkle across the bay are a thrilling sight as the chopper swoops on to the helipad in the coastal neighbourhood of Aberdeen. After the heat, the first things that hit you are the smells and the sounds: the musical racket of the Krio banter that ricochets around you as porters offload luggage, taxi drivers vie for business and traders try to foist their wares on you.
If you’re staying in one of the hotels, such as Country Lodge or Cape Sierra, they will arrange for a car to pick you up. This is probably a better bet than going with one of the local cab drivers, not because you’ll be robbed or attacked but simply because respect for road safety here is scant.
Freetown has a vibrant nightlife and lots of good restaurants, so it’s definitely worth heading straight out. A popular option to get you into the swing of things is Alex’s, a restaurant and nightclub in Man O’War Bay, where you can sit by the sea and enjoy char-grilled barracuda and chips plus a few Star beers; it’s a great bargain given the party atmosphere and the idyllic setting. Other good options for dinner include Mamba Point (for seafood pizza and mouth-watering bouillabaisse), Ramada, Madame Posse’s and Indochine. This last is conveniently located near Copacabana and Paddy’s, two of Freetown’s favourite nightspots. The restaurant at Country Lodge in Hill Station is also excellent, boasting stunning views across the bay.
The next day, head into town, have a snoop around the National Museum — the history of Freetown, founded by freed slaves in 1787, is fascinating — haggle for arts and crafts at the brilliant Big Market on Wallace Johnson Street and make your way over to Wilberforce Road. Here you can buy a map from street traders and have coffee and a pastry at the Crown Bakery (another much-loved institution) while you plan your route.
Hire a boat from Freetown Aqua Sports Club and sail from Cockle Bay in Murraytown to some gorgeous beaches or take a four-wheel-drive. This is a much bumpier ride but will give you a sense of the lush red earth and green hills of the countryside while allowing you more control over your timings: boat trips are tide-sensitive.
For daytrips, River No. 2 Beach or Tokeh Beach, a 45-minute drive from the city, are the places to begin. While River No. 2, with its mountainous backdrop and glittering oceanic horizon, rivals anywhere on earth for breathtaking coastal grandeur, palm-fringed Tokeh has a simpler appeal. Walk along its soft white sands and wander into the charming village, where you can purchase fish straight off the boats, aubergines, tomatoes, rice, chillies and bread. All of which, for a few leones (and the leftovers), one of the locals will be happy to cook up for you on the village fire.
Although there are plans for big tourist developments on Tokeh, including (be warned) a tournament-standard golf course, accommodation options are still limited. We hang mosquito nets from the mango trees and sleep blissfully on the beach, but if you’re keen for some degree of creature comfort, opt for Florence’s Resort on nearby Sussex Beach. It’s a six-room guesthouse with a superb restaurant commonly known as Franco’s — after Florence’s Italian husband, who came out here for the diving in the 1960s and never left — and guests wake to sweeping panoramas of the lagoon. (Request room No. 1 for the best view.)
Rent scuba or snorkelling equipment and explore the marine life, go fishing, swim, eat fresh lobster pasta or fish carpaccio and wash it all down with a cool pinot grigio or, indeed, a pink gin at 6pm. (Like all good Italians, Franco keeps his kitchen and his wine store mercifully well stocked.)
A little farther south is Bureh, which has the best waves for surfing; farther north is Lakka, another heavenly stretch of beach complete with restaurant, bar, freshwater pool and tropical bungalows. Abrahim Daklalah, the enterprising owner of the complex who is known to locals, somewhat inexplicably, as Sexy Bob, is about to do up the place. He’s promising air-conditioned villas for two to eight guests, spa, gym, yoga and improved restaurants.
If you’ve been driving until now, Lakka is an ideal place from which to send the car back to Freetown and hire a boat out to the islands: the everobliging Sexy Bob will rent one to you (plus crew) for a reasonable price.
We head first to Bonthe on Sherbro Island, a brisk five-hour sail to the south. Some of the best fishing in Africa is to be had in these waters and there’s loads of history, so it’s worth staying for a day or two and walking around the village where, among other quirks, there’s an incongruous, ancient British red telephone box.
Bonthe Holiday Village is the prime choice for accommodation: the rooms are huge and comfortable, the staff lovely and the service excellent. There’s a bar and if you are fed up with grilled fish, request groundnut stew, a tasty national specialty.
From the relative sophistication of Bonthe, we navigate our way to the Turtle Islands off the northern tip of Sherbro. There’s no formal accommodation here, so it’s a question of picking your island — Baki, in our case — wading ashore and asking the crowds of children who no doubt will have gathered there if you can see their chief.
Officially, if you ask a chief for permission to stay in his village, he is obliged to accommodate you. And everywhere we ask, we find they do exactly this with characteristically Sierra Leonean grace and humour, rushing off to find us fish, firewood and security guys to watch our belongings while we sleep (entirely unnecessary).
The Turtle Islands are extraordinary: they have an atmosphere of utterly primitive simplicity. Somewhat humbled by the realisation that we have landed in a place untouched by time, we sheepishly dump our backpacks, iPods and cameras in the crumbling remains of an old hotel, a relic from the island’s former glory days, and pitch another mosquitonet camp on the beach.
The villagers bring us grilled jackfish and rice, which we eat under the stars to a soundtrack of local drumming and singing, before finally, lulled by the gentle lapping of the waves, we succumb to our sandy slumbers.
Sierra Leone may not yet have the package tourist infrastructure of other coastal beauty spots but this must surely count in its favour.
So long as you’re up for a bit of adventure, it’s one of the most rewarding and beautiful of countries. The Observer
The Department of Foreign Affairs advises travellers to exercise a high degree of caution in Sierra Leone because of the risk of civil unrest and criminal activity. It is recommended to pay close attention to personal security and avoid political demonstrations and large public gatherings. It is not advised to travel to the border areas with Liberia and Guinea because of the unsettled security situation. More: www.smartraveller.gov.au. The best time to go is December and January, when the weather is cooler and drier. From July to October it can get unbearably hot and sticky. Accommodation options include Country Lodge Hotel, Freetown, phone +232 22 235 589 or www.countrylodgesl.com; Cape Sierra Hotel, Freetown, phone +232 22 272 266; Lakka Sunshine Resort, Lakka Beach, phone +232 76 602 280; Florence’s Resort (aka Franco’s), Sussex Beach, phone +232 76 744 406; Bonthe Holiday Village, Sherbro, phone +232 22 230 055 or www.bontheholidayvillage.com. Hire a boat from the Aqua Sports Club, phone +232 22 272 463, for about $100 a day including crew. Thai and Kenyan airlines fly from Sydney and Perth to Freetown via Bangkok and Nairobi. Fares start at $2745 ex Sydney, including taxes; $2725 ex Perth. More: Escape Travel, 1300 799 783; www.escapetravel.com.au. www.welcometosierraleone.org www.visitsierraleone.org
New day dawning: With its beautiful beaches and island-dotted coast, Sierra Leone was once considered the jewel in Britain’s West African crown; recent elections resulted in a smooth transition to power of the opposition party