Sierra Leone – Long Read

An ecological wonder to compare to Costa Rica

A young girl carries a plate with cashew nuts and fruits to sell at market in Tumbu, a fishing village on the edge of the scenic Western Area Forest Reserve which straddles the Freetown Peninsula. Although marked as  a National Park on maps, the reserve has yet to be protected and suffers from deforestation due to the demand for building material and firewood.

Photo by Joerg Boethling / Alamy

Sierra Leone – Long Read

An ecological wonder to compare to Costa Rica

Hello Sierra Leone, whose natural attractions are being revealed to the world after its long civil war. Long sandy beaches backed by tropical forest, jungle sanctuaries for exotic species and reserves for families of chimpanzees are ready for tourism. What the country doesn’t have yet are the tourists, who are missing an ecological wonder to compare to Madagascar or Costa Rica.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

I have been in Sierra Leone only an hour and am already having a party. I am staying at the airport hotel, following the advice of the guidebooks and British Foreign Office who advise against making the long crossing to Freetown, the capital, by night: “None of the options for transferring between the international airport at Lungi and Freetown is risk-free.”

The hotel is deserted apart from the crew from my flight who have made straight for the bar, still in uniform. They are banned from making the crossing at all. “I have been flying to Sierra Leone for two years and have never left the hotel grounds,” one crew member tells me. It would cost the airline a fortune to send out a replacement should anything happen to one of them. “The helicopter transfer crashed and killed everyone on board,” she says.

So I walk out to explore the roads nearby, slightly nervous about what I might find in the darkness. There are no street lights, no traffic and only the barking of distant dogs and the call of insects disturbs the quiet. Then I see a beer stall lit by a paraffin lamp. Two women dressed in an impressive assortment of bright colors offer me a wobbly plastic stool to sit on and a lukewarm Star beer from a cooler full of melted ice. “You’re brighter by far on a Star,” says a faded advertising sign.

The heavy local Krio dialect, a mix of English, Portuguese and local languages, makes it hard to understand everything Fatimata and Esther say but it is soon clear they are complaining about how lazy their menfolk are. Some problems are universal. Music starts from a battered radio, the fast-picking guitar music of West Africa that is impossible not to dance to. The music calls up a few children of various ages, who politely exchange Krio greetings with me: “Adu, sa (how do, sir)?” “Aw di bodi (how are you)?” “Di bodi fayn (I am fine)!” They are soon dancing and playing with each other, and my evening has suddenly turned into a fun party. I realize I am really going to like Sierra Leone.

My arrival at Lungi International Airport already seems a long time ago. The airport is a fascinating introduction to the country, once I have cleared the first solemn officials with their meticulous paperwork. The arrivals area is a chaotic crowd of passengers hunting for their baggage, women selling phone cards and men hawking taxis and water taxi rides to the capital. My fellow passengers are an equally pioneering mix.

Elaborate handicrafts are on display alongside animal claws

Large women struggling with a pile of even larger suitcases are market traders with new stock. Americans wearing their Sunday go-to-church hats are missionaries slightly bemused at what they might have let themselves in for. A group of tanned and relaxed backpackers joyfully greeting old friends are Peace Corps volunteers back from holidays at home. A few businessmen stand apart, already busy on mobile phones.

Because of the sticky heat, the pace is slow, adding an atmosphere of calm to the disorganisation. Things move slowly but we get there in the end. Everyone finds their bag, everyone gets a ride to the ferry or their hotel, and my first nervous preconceptions are laid to rest.

The crossing next day to Freetown proves just as much a contrast to my fears. A fast, efficient catamaran, equipped with brand-new safety gear and serving complimentary ice-cold drinks, takes me across the wide Sierra Leone River in 25 minutes. Not for the first time, it seems the guidebooks have not caught up with reality. Freetown itself is chaotic, colorful and noisy, full of the contrasts that are the measure of a developing country.

I walk through the chaotic “Big Market” on Wallace Johnson Street, where elaborate handicrafts are on display alongside animal claws and skins being sold as medicine. Then I have a chilled wine by a swimming pool in an upmarket hotel restaurant. Everyone is as friendly as those I met the previous evening, happy to chat and joke but busy. The feel is of people working hard for the future but enjoying today.

Many Africans left here in chains in the days of the Atlantic slave trade

Wandering round, it does not take long to see the tourist attractions. Laid out on an American-style grid system along the waterfront, the city is easy to navigate. Its center is a sprawling Cotton Tree under which some 1,000 former American slaves prayed when they first christened Freetown in 1792 (see mini-feature on “History”). Another landmark is the stone “King’s Gate” which bears the faded inscription “Any slave who passes through this gate is declared a free man”. Slaves liberated from ships stopped off the African coast by the British Royal Navy enforcing a later ban on the slave trade were released here. More somber are the worn steps at the Naval Yard from where many Africans left in chains in the days of the Atlantic slave trade.

What has attracted me to Sierra Leone, however, is not its past but its reputation as a future eco-destination. So the next morning, I take a minibus heading south along the smooth tar road to country’s second city of Bo, a transit point for a seven-hour drive to the interior. Bo’s streets are full of motorbike taxis, many of whose riders are former soldiers in Sierra Leone’s long civil war. Partly because of this background, these “Hondamen” have a reputation for aggressive riding and rudeness that seems undeserved.

“No one helps us buy our bikes,” one tells me during a quick lunch break of groundnut stew and ginger beer. “I have to pay most of my earnings to the owner who rents it to me, so I have no time to waste on the road. Only on Sunday can I keep it all.” David has a family to support and is saving hard for his own motorbike but life is hard. “Ah don chop me money (I’ve eaten my money),” he says, rushing off.

Bo’s market hums with energy, too. Alive with the colors of plastic, ripe fruit and vegetables, the crowded tables are pressed into double-decker service by squatting women entrepreneurs who enjoy the shade cast by those working above. They are full of fun, egging each other on to flirt with me, then hiding shyly behind their hands if I respond. It is a place of laughter.

Struggling to make progress with an underpowered outboard

From Bo, I drive on another good road for an hour before taking to a kidney-bumping dirt track that leads eventually to the languid Moa River. An overladen boat, struggling to make progress with an underpowered outboard, takes me across to Tiwai Wildlife Reserve, a forest-covered island, the place I have come to see.

Even if you have not yet heard of Tiwai, you have probably heard it: the jungle soundtrack for James’ Cameron’s 3D epic Avatar was recorded here. Only 12 sq km in size, the island holds 11 primate species, some 135 bird species, rare butterflies and more than 700 plant species. Here, nature still rules and malaria tablets, insect repellent, long sleeves and long pants are a prerequisite for comfort.

However, a sunset river trip reveals little wildlife other than the sound of insects and poor sightings of birds flitting past in the gloom: a “woolly-necked stork”, and a “woodpecker cormorant”. I do wonder if my guide is just making these names up. I am also told the island is one of the few places in the wild where you can find the “pygmy hippopotamus”, unique to Sierra Leone and Liberia. This solitary nocturnal animal, supposedly related to the whale, is rarely seen. Uh-huh. Fishermen pole dugout canoes silently past on the far bank. A brooding thunderstorm sends us back to the dock early, lightning flashing the sunset sky, full of dark clouds and rosy light. The rainy season is on its way.

He is equally excited about the region’s bird life

Back at the campsite, the evening meal is pasta, fried fish, fried chicken, fried plantain. I am impressed by the comforts being enjoyed by a fellow guest. Generous gin and tonic in hand, he is obviously experienced at making himself at home in the wilds and turns out to be scouting West Africa for a potential wildlife TV series. As he talks about filming that mythical pygmy hippopotamus, a faraway look comes into his eyes. Maybe it really does exist. He is equally excited about the region’s bird life. “It is better than anything I have seen in Madagascar or even Costa Rica,” he says.

Of course, paradise has a downside, as I discover when I wake in the night. A branch cracks suddenly, falling to the forest floor near my thin tent. Monkeys howl, the most recognisable of a range of unfamiliar, sudden sounds. My imagination fills the empty jungle of the evening before with a complete menagerie of fanged predators. Clammy with sweat, itchy with insect repellent, I gulp warm water and pull my damp sarong about me. The more soothing sounds of the tropical jungle – crickets, rain dripping from leaves – eventually lull me back to sleep.

In the morning, I discover a fellow guest has tossed and turned so much he has put his feet though the end of his tent. His pale legs are a mass of red insect bites. The predators of my imagination are not as big as I thought.

After breakfast, guide Mohamed Koroma hacks a path into the dark, shadowy jungle. He is almost literally at home here. “I ran away into the bush during the war,” he says. “I spent one year living in the forest.” I have had a sponge bath but, within seconds, I am again drenched in sweat. We walk silently for an hour through the thick forest of dramatic, towering trees and see a solitary white-bellied Diana monkey flitting high in the foliage overhead, then a very noisy group of Red Colobus scream abuse at us.

He spent one year living in the forest

All the discomforts of the long drive here and the restless night are worth it for these magical glimpses of the natural world. From the ants bustling underfoot, to the endless, fertile variety of plants, I have a sense of life that wants to burst out of its confines, a mirror of the restless energy I saw in Freetown and Bo. Mohamed is passionate about the reserve and the benefit it brings the local community. “I want to mobilize the youth. I have trained 20 guides so far,” he says. Asked what help he needs, his answer is simple: “More tourists.”

Back in Freetown, I visit another reserve that lies on the city’s outskirts. Here, founder Bala Amarasekaran tells me the moving story of how the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary survived Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002. Rebels attacked the sanctuary he founded three times, looting it for food, equipment and medical supplies. The bombing and shooting literally sent one chimp crazy as Bala and a few staff survived on charity themselves. “The keepers were not paid but they went around door to door begging for money and food to help feed the chimps,” he says. It is a reminder that, during the bitterest of conflicts, most ordinary people just struggle to maintain their day-to-day life.

Bala’s story is an inspiring one even without his experiences during those difficult years. Formerly an accountant in Freetown, he was on a drive through the country in 1988 when he came across a chimpanzee for sale by the side of the road. The young male chimp was dehydrated and sick, obviously close to death, so Bala decided on the spur of the moment to pay the $30 needed to rescue him. It was the first of many that gave him a reputation for taking in unwanted animals. Within a few years, he and his wife Sharmila had a small family of chimps, most abandoned pets. Adult chimps are stronger than five men and soon outgrow the cute phase.

As the strays came in, his refuge grew until it now cares for more than 100 chimps. Watching them being fed and at play is a magical moment, the social interaction and gestures reminding me that we humans share 95 per cent of our DNA sequence with these great apes. “We are rehabilitating them into family groups, which is difficult after the abuse many have suffered when kept as pets,” says Bala.

Holding their own against human encroachment

One family of chimps is now living independently in the reserve, behind an electric fence but ready to be released elsewhere when the right area of the country is found. When that might be is difficult to say. Like elsewhere in the world, people want all the land for themselves. However, there was good news in a 2010 survey across the country, the result of a two-year program by Tacugama, that showed the chimp population was twice the estimated number, with some 4,000 individuals in the wild, a sign they may be holding their own against human encroachment.

Now that the war is over, Bala sees real signs of hope: “Up to now our visitors have been mainly aid workers and people working in Freetown. But tourism is starting to pick up.” Of course, the country’s ongoing development will put pressure on its wildlife as well as bring benefits but his response is pragmatic. “We can’t stop development,” he says. “We need it. But you can learn to live with it.”

There is little sign of development on Freetown Peninsula, lined with a series of beaches where the sand on each varies from golden yellow to pure white. The sea is warm and tropical forest backed by misty mountains provides a picture perfect backdrop, with Number 2 Beach having been the setting for several “lost paradise” TV adverts. There are some small fishing communities, with a few beach bars and some basic accommodation, but mostly I have the place to myself. They are among the loveliest beaches I have seen in the world, comparing to the Caribbean beaches of Cuba or Central America, or the Indian Ocean sands of Thailand or Mozambique.

Fortifications that date back to the slave trade

Offshore, the Banana Islands beckon with even more isolation and I escape for a few days of relaxation before the flight home. The only shadow on perfect days of sunshine is the historic remnants of buildings and fortifications that date back to the slave trade. I stay in a hut and watch Atlantic waves collapse lazily on a deserted beach, then enjoy a fresh-caught lobster supper before a night-time swim.

The water is body-warm and the lack of artificial lights makes the stars look even brighter through the dark clouds. As I paddle through the gentle swell, I am followed by a trail of luminescence. Then it starts to rain, while lightning flashes. I stay in the sea, enjoying my natural spa shower. It is another magical moment in this most beautiful of countries.

Despite the lack of tourists on “my” beach, it is is obviously only a matter of time before they come. On my last day in Freetown, I meet Abimbola Carrol, who has done more than anyone to put the country on the map with his Visit Sierra Leone organisation. I ask him what visitors to Sierra Leone should see: “The slave forts at Bunce are very moving and have a lot of potential for tourism in the future. The Turtle Islands are a bit hard core but really beautiful and idyllic. The National Park at Outamba-Kilimi in the north is a wonderful eco destination. And you must spend the night in an eco-lodge at Tacugama…”

I realize I have asked a parent to name his favorite child. I also notice that, despite all my precautions with insect sprays, I may have caught something in Sierra Leone: like Bala with his chimps, his love is contagious.