For some, Sierra Leone’s reputation as a tourist destination is still shadowed by the distant spectre of the civil war – even after, over a decade of democracy. Yet it is one of the most fascinating, naturally bountiful and safest countries in West Africa, with breathtaking beaches, rich natural resources and a vibrant culture. Travel writer Stephanie Ross takes us on a trip round the country to discover the laid-back pleasures of Freetown, animal sanctuaries, an exciting new fashion venture and hospitality, Sierra Leone-style…
WORDS Stephanie Ross PHOTOGRAPHY Emily Mott
Mister Olu’s voice is a mellifluous cross between Louis Armstrong and Isaac Hayes. “Why don’t more visitors come to Banana Island?” he booms. “We have the finest fish, the finest beaches, we have our beautiful village. Although it is a sad thing that we don’t in fact have any bananas.” At this, he creases up with laughter.
Mr Olu is the manager of Banana Island guesthouse, a cluster of romantic, African-style huts set around a secluded beach, with only the occasional monkey and thud of ripe mangoes flumping to the sand to intrude on the tranquillity. His question is a good one.
If you’re looking for adventurous travel in a country that will welcome you with open arms and happily show off its endless treasures, then you need look no further than Sierra Leone. Verdant green countryside gently encircles endless kilometres of white sandy beaches, some so beautiful they were used as the setting for the 1980s Bounty chocolate bar adverts with the ‘taste of paradise’ slogan, familiar to millions of TV viewers around the globe.
The capital, Freetown, is vibrant, hectic and defiantly alive. Streets are lined with market stalls, the proud domain of women dressed in fiercely bright colours. The local language, Krio, a richly interpreted version of English, is as colourful as the clothes (the official language being English, but Krio is more widespread). People are friendly and welcoming, and there’s a palpable sense of quiet national pride. Sierra Leone’s people want you to love their country as much as they do.
You don’t need a choc-bar advert to tell you that Sierra Leone has more than enough natural beauty and natural resources to catapult it into the big-time tourism league – there are wonderful natural scenes and picture-perfect backdrops everywhere you look. But it still has a major image problem, albeit one that’s becoming increasingly outdated by the day and hopefully less and less relevant in the age of switched on, digitally savvy and more open-minded holidaymakers.
In reality, the country has been peaceful for almost 15 years. The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus took its toll, but the disease was eradicated in March 2016. President Ernest Bai Koroma maintains that Sierra Leone “has no business being poor”. His government is turning the focus onto the country’s infrastructure – always a welcome boon for tourism – and it recently launched an ambitious EU-funded road and bridge-building programme.
Meanwhile, a new international airport is planned, and the journey from the current one, which has been a shambolic experience for decades, is now reasonably trouble-free, via the Sea Coach Express: a commercial waterway taxi and shuttle-bus service which began in 2009 with one boat and now has a fleet of over 20. International hotel chains Radisson Blu and Hilton have invested in the tourism potential by opening luxury hotels in Freetown. This may still be a developing country experiencing the difficulties of intermittent electricity and a laissez-faire attitude to everyday logistics such as rubbish collection, but positive change is inarguably in the air.
The past is another country
The country has been here before. Back in the 1980s, Sierra Leone offered a playboy paradise, its shimmering white sands home to art-deco casinos, plush golf courses and endless martinis. Helipads jutting out from the pale-blue sea offered celebs of the era, such as Johnny Hallyday, UB40 and even Jacques Chirac, easy access to a naturally exotic and exciting place to play.
But then, in 1991, the war came. Amid the atrocities and horrors that came with it, hundreds of thousands fled or fell as the country was ransacked, robbed and burned by Foday Sankoh’s rebel army. They were horrific times, but as almost everyone here is at pains to point out, they are in the past – and that is a place no one ever wants to go to again.
I first came here nine years ago and fell for the strong, determined people and their beautiful country. There was something about their friendliness and openness that made it one of the most endearing places to travel, despite its shortcomings. I’ve wanted to come back ever since.
And so I spend a few hours at Lumley Beach in Freetown, with its miles of soft, orange sand lined with open-air bars and shack-style restaurants. At Roy’s Beach bar, I indulge in freshly caught red mullet with spicy tomato sauce, watching chains of fishermen engage in a determined tug-of-war against teams of unseen fish. Short of some girls stopping to shyly wave and say ‘Hi’, no one bothers me.
A short 20-minute boat ride from Freetown is Banana Island, a wonderful world with a few guesthouses dotted around the outside and villagers living in the centre. Locals are keen to share their stories of the history of this island. You can spend time with people such as 70-year-old Lomu, who hands out moreish pink fruit as he talks about Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce; about the British buying this land for £1,000 plus sackloads of sugar, salt and rum; about the names of the first slaves etched into the wood of the massive cotton tree down by the wharf.
Freedom from slavery
Once one of the most important European slave-trading posts in the region, in 1787, Sierra Leone became home to the first colony of freed slaves in Africa at the behest of UK abolitionists led by Henry Smeathman. On arrival, they bought land in the place known locally as Romarong – the Place Of Crying. Perhaps wisely, they quickly renamed it ‘free town’. Nearby Bunce Island was one of the biggest slave forts in West Africa, where thousands languished before being sold and transported across the Atlantic to America. Bunce now stands as an atmospherically crumbling relic, roots of forest greens and silvers winding round the gaping mouths of old doorways and windows, almost as if nature is trying to cover over past horrors.
Not that the people have forgotten the stories, of course. A 40-minute boat ride will bring you here, and a guide will point out the details of the ruins – the fire where brands were heated ready to burn RACE (property of the Royal African Company of England) onto the chests of new arrivals, or the shady stone semi-circle where traders would sit under a fluttering Union flag to decide which human beings they wanted to buy.
“Most people who come to Sierra Leone want to come back again despite the difficult bits, because the good bits are like something from paradise,” says Fabrizio Miari, who manages his parents’ guesthouse, Franco’s, on Sussex Beach. “Look at my father – he came here over 30 years ago from Italy and never went home again.”
Fabrizio’s father Franco came for an adventure, met a local lass, married her and set up shop. Their guesthouse was stripped bare during the war, and champion swimmer Franco would take his family on a boat out to sea every night in the hope of safe refuge from the fighting, hiding his prized medal collection in weighted packages in the river as he went. Only his wife Florence preferred to stay on terra firma amidst the gunfire and the refugees, on the grounds that she didn’t like boats.
Today, Franco’s guesthouse offers large, comfortable rooms with hot running water and decent showers. It sits facing a warm lagoon, separated from the breakers of the Atlantic by a large golden sandbank. Franco’s Italian roots shine through in the restaurant, which serves delicate fish carpaccio and delicious fresh lobster pasta. Franco’s is just one of several appealing places to stay on this stretch of the coast. River Number Two (where those Bounty chocolate adverts were filmed – apologies if we’re making you hungry here), still has the power to take your breath away. At low tide the shimmering white sands stretch for miles amid dazzling aquamarine waters. A boatman bides his time by the bank, happy to take you on the hour’s lazy journey upriver to the waterfalls, if you have the inclination. A small thatched hut sits to one side; remarkably, given the lack of passing trade and the intense heat, I discover the miracle that is ice-cold beer under the welcome shade of the palm-leaf roof.
10 minutes’ walk away, Tokeh Sands Resort takes full advantage of the area’s natural assets. Rooms in the main hotel are large and modern, or you can go for the traditional (and cheaper) option of one of the prettily decorated rustic shacks on the beach.
Either way, the setting is like something from a film set, thatched umbrellas artfully tilted this way and that, hammocks swinging in the breeze over pale golden sands. If you fancy a bit of undersea adventuring, there are plenty of renowned places to go diving or snorkelling, or to take boat trips. Tokeh has a sunken pleasure cruiser just off the coast for visitors keen on wreck diving, while Banana Island offers a superb spot with sunken Portuguese cannons and plenty of fish.
Travel inland and you’ll find gentle hills swathed with palm trees, sweaty mangrove swamps and deeply forested mountains. Many people here still farm rice; their expertise in the paddies was one of the reasons Sierra Leonian slaves were so coveted by plantation owners in the US deep South. We drive for almost an hour to reach Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (where King Bruno escaped from back in 2006, see boxout), and find ourselves standing deep within a blanket of tropical rainforest. The excited whoops of dozens of chimpanzees echo around as I dodge my way though drooping catkins of hot pink flowers towards half-a-dozen or so beautiful traditional-style chalets.
Here, you will find pristine white bedding, a private terrace where a breakfast of fruits and local breads appears magically in the morning, and your own lazy hammock. I am enchanted to be woken up by the chattering calls of sunbirds and the screeching of chimps in the hill above, and spend the morning learning their stories (most have been rescued from abuse as domestic pets, or orphaned when their mothers were killed for bushmeat). The sanctuary also offers yoga retreats and ‘birds and breakfast’ tours of the dense rainforest. Yoga to a soundtrack of chimpanzees. Who could resist such a magical way to start the day?
Therein lies the beauty of Sierra Leone – in marked contrast to a world of increasingly predictable and packaged-up tour experiences, it’s a welcoming, vibrant destination that will never fail to surprise you. A trip here is an eye-opening journey into villages where elegant women still pound maize and cook over open fires, children play football amid bleating goats, and village chiefs drink palm wine and ruminate at length on the state of the world. More often than not, you are welcome to join in some or all of the above. It’s a way of life that has gone on for centuries, and people here are determined that nothing will make them change their ways. Despite the difficulties the country has faced, it is this determination that makes Sierra Leone one of the most charming and evocative places to visit in West Africa.
The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, in the Western Area Peninsula National Park close to Freetown, was established in 1995. It protects and conserves chimpanzees with the aim of rehabilitating them and returning them to the wild; it currently houses around 75; the country’s estimated total population is around 5,000, down from 20,000 in the 1970s.
In April 2006, the alpha male of the Sanctuary’s first group of orphaned chimpanzees, Bruno (named after British boxer Frank) was part of a group of 31 chimpanzees who escaped, having observed how to unlock their traps. A taxi driver, Issi Kanu, and his passengers encountered the group and were attacked; Kanu and his group fled on foot, but in the ensuing chaos, tragically, Kanu lost his life. While 27 chimpanzees returned to the Sanctuary, Bruno and three others disappeared into the jungle.
Bruno’s legend spread among the people of Sierra Leone, and the chimpanzee’s story has been immortalised in a beautifully illustrated children’s book, King Bruno. The work was described by Jane Goodall as “Enchanting, moving and educational… will appeal
to young and old alike”. Wings spoke to its author, Paul Glynn…
Could you tell us about your inspiration for writing the book, and your involvement with the Sanctuary?
“I first heard the legend of Bruno in a bar in Freetown: two men were talking about sightings of a ‘mysterious beast’ in the provinces and they thought it could be Bruno, the escaped chimp. I was hooked immediately. I went up to Tacugama, met Bala (the sanctuary director) and started asking questions. 10 years later, I’ve written a book and made a short film about Bruno, and visit the sanctuary as often as I can. It’s a beautiful and inspiring place and testimony to the passion of the people who run it. I’d recommend a visit to anyone – chimp-lover or not!”
And about your other Sierra Leone-related projects?
“I’ve always tried to find documentary projects that take me back to Sierra Leone. I’ve shot films about unemployed youth, sanitation and the environmental crisis in Freetown. But my real passion is showing the beauty of the country and the charm and energy of the people. I plan to start filming my first movie set in Sierra Leone next year.”
What would be your advice for travellers planning a trip there?
“Sierra Leone is full of great stories and the best way to hear them is from local people. Be open, accept hospitality when it’s offered, be prepared to rough it and find hidden gems. It can be a difficult country to travel in, but it’s very rewarding.”
And what’s your favourite memory of your time in the country?
“One that stands out is my first visit to Tacugama: Bala trusted me immediately to tell the story of Bruno, and the more I learned about it the more excited I got. I was filming every day and into the evening, watching the footage back at night… It was inspiring, and for all its difficulties, Sierra Leone continues to inspire me.”
You can find out more about Bruno’s story and buy the book at
www.kingbruno.com. The sanctuary has eco-lodges for overnight stays. See www.tacugama.com for more information.
Sierra In Style
Isatu Harrison is the entrepreneur behind Izelia, an exciting new label on the fashion landscape that interweaves the cultures of Britain and Sierra Leone
Officially launched a mere two years ago at 2014’s Africa Fashion Week and London Fashion Week events, new fashion label Izelia – founded by designer and entrepreneur Isatu Harrison – is about to open up a boutique in West London before the year is out. Harrison is from the Eastern town of Kono, Sierra Leone; she arrived in the UK in 2001 and, having raised a family and worked in the corporate world, the time was finally right for her to follow her passion for the world of fashion, drawing on her Sierra Leonian heritage to create a range of modern and sophisticated line of ready-to-wear outfits. Izelia is sylish and colourful and geared to making an impression, with high-quality fabrics and structured tailoring. Each piece features a new twist on African-inspired fashion and Isatu’s own signature style of design.
Harrison and her three siblings were raised by her entrepreneurial single mother, and when the civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, her family uprooted to Freetown. She grew up watching her mother design outfits for herself and others using West African tie-dyed prints. There was no welfare system, and her mother worked hard to ensure her family did not have to struggle. Isatu hails her mother as her biggest inspiration and influence.
By combining colourful African tie-dye and prints, flattering stretch denim, silk chiffon and even military-inspired jumpsuits, Izelia brings a fusion of styles and a taste of Sierra Leone to the British high street. Having seen the impact that civil war can make on communities, Isatu will be organising training programmes and apprenticeships for immigrants and first-generation citizens in Fashion Design.
“I intend to inspire and assist women in rural Sierra Leone, be a voice for these women and young creatives,” Harrison says. “Through Izelia, I wish to invest long-term in Sierra Leone’s private sector and I’m interested in developing manufacturing, as well as production factories and establishing additional outlets in Africa. I’m proud to be among a growing crop of entrepreneurs who are creating employment opportunities and bringing economic growth to our countries across Africa.”
Find out more about Izelia at izelia.co.uk