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Sierra Leone

Even after a decade of democracy after the civil war, Sierra Leone might not be your first choice. Yet it’s now one of the safest countries in West Africa – with breathtaking beaches, rich natural resources and a vibrant culture. Book your trip now before the rest of the world catches up, says Stephanie Ross. Photography by Emily Mott

Anyone’s game Part of Freetown’s beautiful Lumley Beach doubles up an impromptu football pitch, which offers grandstand views of Cockerill Bay


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Sierra Leone

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hy don’t more visitors come to Banana Island?’ booms Mr Olu, his voice a mellifluous cross between Louis Armstrong and Isaac Hayes. ‘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 mangos flumping to the sand to intrude on the tranquillity. His question is a good one. A stunning country with enough natural resources to catapult it into the big time tourism league – and now one of the safest in West Africa – Sierra Leone still has a major image problem. President Ernest Bai Koroma recently stated that Sierra Leone ‘has no business being poor’. This may be somewhat optimistic – it is still a developing country experiencing the difficulties of bad roads, intermittent electricity and a laissez-faire attitude to rubbish collection. But positive change is in the air. According to the World Bank, the country has enjoyed the world’s fastest improvement in political stability in the last ten years, and the world’s second fastest improvement on the UN human development index. Several large-scale projects are now underway: the red-dust road that winds south from Freetown is being replaced with a smooth new highway, cutting travelling time to some of West Africa’s finest beaches by half. A new airport is planned, and the journey from the current one – shambolic for decades – is now reasonably trouble-free via the sea coach express. Radisson, Hilton and Marriott are all planning to open luxury hotels within the next two years. Back in the 1980s, Sierra Leone offered a playboy paradise, its shimmering white sands home to Art Deco casinos, golf courses Donald Trump would snap up, and endless martinis for the beautiful people. Helipads jutting out from the pale blue sea offered celebs such as Johnny Hallyday, UB40 and Jacques Chirac easy access to a naturally beautiful and exciting place to play. But then 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. These were horrific times, but as almost everyone you meet 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 six 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. These days, 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. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what signs saying ‘no piss ya’ mean. In most coastal cities, the beach becomes a frenetic centre of hawking and inadvisable swimwear. But people in Sierra Leone are, for the most part, too busy trying to earn a living to bother about the beaches. Which means they are yours for the taking. Before heading out of Freetown, I spend a few hours at Lumley beach, 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 tug of war against teams of unseen fish. Short of some girls stopping to shyly wave and say hi, no one bothers me. Sierra Leone’s history is captivating. Once one of the most important European slave trading posts in the region

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Clockwise from left A fisherman on his way to Bunce Island – once one of the largest slave forts here; at Banana Island Wharf, boats are repaired under a cotton tree – in Freetown, one such tree is a historic symbol of freedom; everything from shoes to brightly coloured fabrics for sale at a Freetown market


Explorations

Sierra Leone

local insight (the slaves who mutinied on the good ship La Amistad were Sierra Leonian), in 1787 it became 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 Freetown. A 20-minute boat ride from Kent Beach in Freetown is Banana Island. Here, people wave and ask how my day is as I walk to the local village, Dublin, to meet 70-yearold Lodmu, imperious village elder and storyteller extraordinaire. On his verandah he shares out moreish pink fruit and tells me the island’s histor y: about Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce; 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. An hour away is Bunce Island, formerly one of the largest slave forts in West Africa, where thousands languished before being sold and transported across the Atlantic to America. Bunce Island 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. My guide Abdulai points out chilling 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, and the shady stone semicircle 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, Florence’s Resort (affectionately know as 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 on an adventure, met a local lass, married her and set up shop. Their guesthouse was stripped bare during the war and Franco, a champion swimmer, would take his children on a boat out to sea every night in the hope of a 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

Aminatta Forna is a Scottish-born novelist who grew up in Sierra Leone, and her memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, describes her childhood there. Here she recalls the places and things that evoke her childhood… I love the cassava leaves and rice at Café de la Rose in Freetown and the okra stew, although it’s not for beginners. But the Sierra Leonian equivalent of an English fry-up – fried plantain, black beans and smoked fish – is delicious. Afterwards, head for coffee and cake to Freetown’s best bookshop, Diaspora Books. I remember marvelling at the night sky. When there’s a full moon it’s daylight bright. The night storms

are also impressive. I once spent a night watching three join up to become one perfect storm. I used to take the boat to Bunce Island for a picnic. There’s an old slave fort complete with cannon, a cave full of bats and huge undulating dunes of oyster shells that the slavers used to burn to make lime for the mortar. Members of the secret societies work all year on their costumes for the 'devil dancing'. Drummers bind their hands before starting a beat that swells to a certain pitch, until finally 'the devil' comes out. I went one New Year with my husband and, despite the fact we knew it was a man under the costume, we still took to our heels. Bathurst, the first village to be settled by freed Creole slaves, is like a little bit of Louisiana with its clapboard houses, a mirror image of the US Deep South. Aminatta Forna’s latest book, The Hired Man, is out now (£16.99, Bloomsbury).

A beach of promise River no 2, where the Bounty ‘tales of paradise’ ads were filmed

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Sierra Leone

where to stay Barmoi Hotel One of the best hotels in Freetown, offering spacious clean modern rooms, many with private balconies. Decent restaurant and two pools with stunning views over the Atlantic. Ask for a room in the new building to get the best views. Doubles from £91. hotelbarmoi.com Banana Island Guest house Traditional-style huts lining a private beach with ensuite bathrooms but sometimes rustic facilities (no air-con). Fresh fish served daily on the beach. Boat trips, diving and snorkelling gear available. Doubles £30 a night. bananaislandguesthousebiya.org Tokeh Sands beach Resort Immaculate, modern rooms to a high standard with powerful showers and air conditioning. Traditional thatched chalets offer a cheaper, but still comfortable, option. There is a good restaurant and cocktail bar on site. Chalets from £32, doubles from £65. tokehbeachresort.com Florence’s Resort Pretty Mediterranean style guesthouse perched on a corner of Sussex beach with large comfortable rooms, hot showers and

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air conditioning. Great food, and you can dine on the beach. Boat trips, diving and snorkelling gear available. From £51 a night. tokehbeachresort.com Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary Beautiful eco-friendly traditional lodges, each with private terrace, where you can breakfast on fresh fruits and local breads. From £59 a night. tacugama.com All bookable via Rainbow Tours (rainbowtours.co.uk).

Go by the board Natural air-con at Dalton’s Banana Guesthouse on Banana Island; village elder and storyteller Lodmu in Dublin (top)

stay on terra firma amidst the gunfire and the refugees, on the grounds that she didn’t like boats. Today Franco’s guesthouse offers five 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. Over the sea wall is the forest where villagers take part in the initiation rights of the Poro society. Ancient rules state that when the devil is hungry he must be fed – if you should visit while the devil is hungry, prepare to be awakened by the mournful cries of village women as they take food to sate him. Nearby, the curiously named River No 2, where the Bounty ‘taste of paradise’ ads were filmed, still has the power to take your breath away. At low tide the shimmering white sands stretch for miles amid dazzling aquamarine waters. This place has got to be in contention for one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but unlike most of its competitors, you are likely to be the only people here, save for a few fishermen. 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, we discover the miracle of cold beer under the welcome shade of the palm leaf roof. Ten minutes’ walk away, Tokeh Sands Beach 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 right on the beach. Either way, the setting is like something from a filmset, thatched sun umbrellas artfully tilted this way and that, hammocks swinging in the breeze over pale golden sands. There are several places to go diving or snorkelling or to take boat trips. Tokeh has a sunken pleasure cruiser just off the coast to make things more interesting, 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


Primate time Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary has been providing shelter for orphaned and endangered animals since 1995

GO on then… DESTINATION: sierra leone FIND IT AT BA.COM British Airways flies to Freetown three times a week from London Heathrow. Flight time: six hours.

COLLECT THOSE AVIOS Join the Executive Club and collect at least 6,080 Avios for a return flight from London to Freetown.* Or redeem your Avios – 40,000 will pay for a return journey**. ba.com

for more african adventures... Discover city hot spot Accra in Ghana at bahighlife.com.

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*Based on World Traveller. Excludes reward flights. **Taxes, fees and surcharges also apply

people here still grow rice, their expertise in the paddies one of the reasons Sierra Leonian slaves were so coveted by plantation owners from the US Deep South. ‘You’ve picked a good night to stay with us,’ says Frankie McKenna, programme manager at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. ‘Jean-Philippe is cooking a fivecourse French dinner for all the guests.’ Five courses? French? I have driven for almost an hour, and am 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. A man who looks very much like the chef from The Muppets is bent over an open fire. I’m a bit doubtful about how this might turn out. He comes over and snips off a few chains of pink flowers. ‘For the table,’ he says. A couple of hours later, we sit down to an open-air, five-course banquet complete with softly poached eggs, perfect hollandaise and tender roast quail. Bottles of chilled white wine appear as candlelight flickers over little vases of artfully arranged flowers. That’s the beauty of Sierra Leone – it never fails to surprise you. There are half a dozen beautiful traditional-style chalets here, and the standard is really very good. Pristine white bedding, a private terrace where a breakfast of fruits and local breads appears magically in the morning, 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 us, and we spend the morning learning their stories (most have been rescued from abuse as domestic pets or orphaned when their mothers were killed for bushmeat). In the acres of rainforest that make up the sanctuary, they are happy, and so are we. Whatever Sierra Leone might lack in luxury, it more than makes up for in hospitality. A trip here is an eyeopening 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 all or some of the above. When the high-end hotels come – and they will – experiences such as these might vanish. As Mr Olu might have it, Sierra Leone may not always have bananas, but bananas are not the only fruit. Africa specialist Rainbow Tours offers a 12-night holiday in Sierra Leone, combining Tacugama with Banana Island, from £2,670, based on two sharing and includes return BA flights from London, accommodation, private guide (except on Banana Island), some meals, entry fees, transfers and transportation. Contact +44 (0)20 7666 1250 or rainbowtours.co.uk.

Sierra Leone High Life - Aug 13  
Sierra Leone High Life - Aug 13  
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