Rupert Parker visits Sierra Leone, a West African country, now completely recovered from a dreadful civil war.
Freetown enjoys a stunning setting at the foot of verdant green mountains vanishing into the clouds, perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It was founded in 1792 by the British government, as a haven for returned slaves and went through a number of false starts as climate and disease took its toll. These days there’s still a smattering of colonial-style wooden rickety houses, patched with rusted corrugated iron, in districts with English place names like Gloucester, Leicester and Kent.
I’m staying on Lumley Beach, the town’s seaside playground, home to fishermen and sun-worshippers alike. From here the Atlantic coast stretches south in an unbroken stretch of sand with decent hotels to match. My favourite is luxury resort, The Place, at Tokeh Beach, where brightly painted wooden fishing canoes arrive in the evening to unload their catch on the brilliant white sand. The Banana islands, just off the coast, offer more of the Robinson Crusoe experience, as the accommodation is pretty basic.
Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary
Sierra Leone has the third-largest population of Chimpanzees in Africa, after Liberia and Guinea, but they’re critically endangered with only an estimated 5000 left in the wild. The adults are hunted for bushmeat, leaving many orphans to fend for themselves. This sanctuary, just outside Freetown, is home to around 80 rescued animals.
Mama Posseh Kamara has been rearing baby chimps for 15 years and they stay with her until they’re old enough to join the others. Although the long term aim is to release them back into the wild it’s been tough to find a suitable location. Fortunately, Sierra Leone has recently chosen the chimpanzee as its national symbol and there’s hope that this might stop some of the hunting.
In the east of the country, on the edge of the Gola rain forest national park, is Tiwai Island. It has one of the densest and most diverse populations of primates in the world, with 11 species co-existing in an area of 12 square km. Also here is the rare and endemic pygmy hippopotamus, with only around 200 left in the country. On my boat trip around the island, I think I get a fleeting glimpse of one, but it’s hard to be sure. Camping is the only option here, but it’s worth it to hear the deafening dawn chorus, a mixture of monkeys and birds.
North of here is Kono district, Sierra Leone’s diamond mining region, known as the Wild East. In 1972, a huge 969 specimen, aptly named the Star of Sierra Leone and the third-largest in the world was found here. Much of the mining is still done by hand and, by the side of the road, are huge diggings populated by ant-like figures bent double. They’re sieving the alluvial gravel in the hope of finding something sparkling. Today the diamond trade is meant to be regulated by the government, but it seems the cowboys are still in control.
Near the border with Guinea, are the Wara Mountains easily accessed from Kabala. The huge black cliff of Gbawuria Hill, towering above the town, is sacred so you need permission from the local chiefs before you can make the stiff one hour climb up to the top. From there you get splendid views of the town with the mountains stretching to the horizon, in brilliant greens and milky blues. On the way down, I stop and sample some palm wine from rustic producers – refreshing and only mildly alcoholic.
Before I leave, I have to visit Bunce Island, an hour’s boat ride from Freetown, and a grim reminder of the country’s past. It was settled and fortified by English slave traders around 1670 and 50,000 Africans were shipped from here to the United States until the trade was outlawed in 1807. Amid the crumbling ruins of this slave castle, you can still make out the yards where captives were held and the large house where the owners lived their lives of luxury.
Sierra Leone has had an extremely troubled recent history with years of civil war followed by an outbreak of Ebola virus. But, as I’ve journeyed around the county, everyone has been remarkably friendly, curious to find out what I’m doing, as tourism is so new. At the moment, this is a niche destination, with people visiting for the wildlife, including chimps and pygmy hippos. But the marvellous beaches and deserted tropical islands are sure to be a major draw in the future.
Tell Me More About Sierra Leone
Radisson Blu Mammy Yoko Hotel, Freetown, is a comfortable base on Lumley Beach.
The Place at Tokeh Beach is Sierra Leone’s Premier Beach Resort.
Brussels Airlines flies to Freetown via Brussels,
Rainbow Tours has a ten day trip to Sierra Leone starting from £2795 per person, based on two sharing including flights, all transfers, all activities, all accommodations and meals as per itinerary.