Sierra Leone has everything adventurous travellers could want – exquisite, empty beaches fringed by palms, rainforest jungles with monkeys swinging through the trees, a fascinating heritage and warm, welcoming people. But its troubled history of civil war and Ebola means that few visitors actually make it here.
Now fully reconciled and recovered, this beautiful West African country is moving on and it’s time to return – before everyone else does…
Sierra Leone has had a rough ride in recent years. First, there was a bitter civil war from 1991 to 2002, leaving more than 50,000 people dead and 2 million displaced. Graphically portrayed in Leonardo DiCaprio’s film Blood Diamonds, the conflict was fuelled by the diamond industry and characterised by extreme violence, kidnappings, child soldiers and horrific human rights abuses.
At the end of the war, Sierra Leone was one of the poorest countries in the world. Peace brought political stability and democracy, a vastly improved economy and a remarkable reconciliation of its people that still stands strong today. By 2014, the country was back on its feet, tourists were returning and the future looked bright.
Then came Ebola. The deadly virus took the lives of nearly 4000 people and the entire country ground to a halt in a state of emergency and fear. In March 2016, the nation celebrated as Sierra Leone was finally declared Ebola-free. Intrepid travellers are slowly returning, drawn by the beaches, islands and jungles of this beautiful country – but it’s the people themselves, their warmth, spirit and sense of fun, that leave such lasting memories.
Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Moa River, is just 12 square kilometres. But it's home to around 80 rare and elusive pygmy hippos and an astounding 11 species of primates – one of the highest primate concentrations in the world.
Sierra Leone’s first ecotourism enterprise, the sanctuary's profits benefit the eight communities that live near the island. Walking trails take you deep into the forests where chimpanzees, red colobus and Diana monkeys cavort in the canopy.
Take a boat trip along the gentle river to see some of the 135 species of birds on the island, amble to the pristine honey-coloured beach on the northern shore, or explore the caves in the nearby village of Niahun where bats – and spirits – live.
There’s just one simple camp here, with dome tents under shelters and limited solar power, but it adds to that wonderful feeling of escapism that Tiwai is all about.
Known by locals as 'Sweet Salone', Sierra Leone has a rich food culture. Although there are plenty of international restaurants in the capital Freetown, it’s worth sampling some typical Salone dishes while you’re here.
Fried plantain with pancakes make for a hearty breakfast, or fresh juicy pineapple and mangos a more virtuous option. The fish here is fabulous, with thick steaks of barracuda or whole tilapia popular choices, while beach shacks and restaurants serve delicious shellfish including lobster, crabs and oysters.
In markets and on street corners, the smell of warm, just-cooked bread wafts over from trays of baguette-like fula loaves balanced on vendors’ heads. Other favourites include groundnut stew and spinachy cassava leaves, usually with a generous heap of chilli, to accompany chicken, goat, fish and rice, all washed down with the local Star beer.
Sierra Leone’s beaches are difficult to leave: belts of glorious white sand stretch along an aquamarine Atlantic coastline for around 360km. The Western Peninsula is the most popular area for a taste of palm-fringed paradise – indeed the unimaginatively named River Number Two Beach was the setting for the 1970s Bounty chocolate bar ad.
Nearby Tokeh Beach was once the magnet for glamorous French celebs and parliamentarians who would flock to the now derelict Africana Resort in the 1980s. Instead, today’s visitors stay at The Place, a luxury resort with 54 chic chalets, or the more rustic but very chilled Tokeh Sands.
Amble for hours on the squeaky sands, watch the fishermen of Tokeh village pulling in their daily catch from weathered wooden dhows, or simply melt in the vivid sunsets and warm ocean breeze.
Tragically, the men and women who worked in Sierra Leone’s rice fields became sought-after slaves, with more than 50,000 people leaving the country’s biggest slave port, Bunce Island, bound for the American states of Georgia and South Carolina.
Today, the castle lies in ruins, with vines slowly strangling what’s left of the ramparts and cells. Canons still pointing out to sea are smothered in weeds and grasses. An hour’s boat ride from Freetown, its neglect adds to the eeriness and poignancy of the place, but there are plans to restore and protect it to keep its story alive.
Nowhere is the country's spirit more evident than in the Sierra Leone Marathon. Named Best International Event in the Running Awards 2017, beating top contenders such as the Berlin and New York marathons, it's the run’s feel-good factor that earned it the accolade.
The race is organised by UK charity Street Child and raises funds for its projects across the country. With distances for all levels, ranging from 5km around the northern town of Makeni to a full 42km around its lush hills and neighbouring villages, you don’t have to be a running fanatic to take part. En route, cheeky children high-five and cheer you on, shouting out “Oporto” (white person) as you pass. Grown-ups cheer too, often shouting “Thank you!”
Their gratitude is for supporting Street Child’s projects that help provide education for children, particularly girls, and protect thousands of Ebola orphans from life on the streets. You’ll see where the money’s going and meet people who benefit on project visits that include remote schools, family businesses and frenetic markets.
After the run, you can chill on the beach or explore further afield with specialist tour operator Africa Marathons.
Top image © Kelsey M Weber/Shutterstock