PAR­ADISE RE­GAINED

Beau­ti­ful Sierra Leone is start­ing to at­tract ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers, re­ports Cle­mency Bur­ton-Hill

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Check­list

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

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

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

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