What has made me want to come to Sierra Leone is not its troubled past, marked by slavery and civil war, but its reputation as a future eco-destination.
From Bo, the country’s second city after Freetown, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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