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Think of Africa, and chances are Sierra Leone won’t be the first country to come to mind. In fact, it might be the last. The bloody civil war that raged between March 1991 and January 2002 and the Ebola epidemic certainly don’t contribute to the reputation of the country as a tourist destination. Many still think it’s a dangerous place.
Yet, those who venture to this West African country will be rewarded with beautiful, lush landscapes; pristine beaches; and an incredibly rich historic and cultural heritage. They will quickly realize that Sierra Leone’s reputation for being unsafe is misplaced.
If you love exploring lesser known destinations, Sierra Leone is for you. Receiving a mere 81,000 visitors per year according to the World Bank, Sierra Leone is the 9th-least visited country in Africa. However, the World Bank is quite convinced of Sierra Leone’s tourist potential and is investing in long-term programs to improve its tourist infrastructure, which at the moment is beyond basic.
Should you choose to travel to Sierra Leone, expect the most bare-bones accommodation options. While the capital, Freetown, has a selection of very good hotels and restaurants (with many Middle Eastern offerings thanks to a large Lebanese community), other places have only very basic guest houses. The most remote islands completely lack facilities, such as running water and electricity.
Knowing what to expect for a trip to Sierra Leone and how to prepare (there are several travel requirements) is essential, and packing smartly is key. Make sure to carry a sleeping sheet as many guest houses outside of the capital won’t provide clean sheets; and carry a good amount of wet wipes as showering is not an option in the most remote places.
Sierra Leone has been inhabited for thousands of years, but we only have documentation of its history from the 15th century onwards. That’s when Portuguese traders arrived, naming the country after the shape of the mountain that surrounded the Freetown Peninsula.
Soon after the arrival of the Portuguese, other merchants arrived and engaged in the trade of goods, as well as slaves, who were mostly sent to the colonies to work in sugar and cotton plantations.
At the end of the 18th century, the first freed slaves made it back to the region, most arriving from Nova Scotia. That’s when Freetown was founded. Once the British Parliament established the end of the slave trade (though not that of slavery!) in 1807, many places in Sierra Leone became a base to stop the illegal trade.
Several places surrounding Freetown and beyond provide insights into the country’s colonial past. Make sure to visit the Banana Islands, an easy day trip from Freetown: they were used to control the slave trade, and when that was abolished a small village was created as a base for freed slaves. The most notable buildings on the main island (called Dublin) are the two churches, but you will also want to take some time to relax at the beach.
Bunce Island is another place to discover the country’s colonial past. Easily reached by ferry from Freetown, the island was home to the largest British slave castle in West Africa. From here, tens of thousands of slaves were shipped to North America and the West Indies. Remains of the buildings used during slave trade can still be seen. Take a guided tour to make the most of your experience.
Bonthe, located on Sherbro Island on the Sherbro River estuary, was a British control post, and later a place where freed slaves settled. Once a thriving port, it’s now home to some derelict yet charming colonial buildings. It’s also a good place to discover local wildlife – birdwatching is particularly good on Sherbro Island.
To better grasp the history of Sierra Leone, visit the National Museum of Sierra Leone, located in the building where the Cotton Tree Railway Station of Freetown used to be, and close to the massive Cotton Tree of Freetown where many freed slaves paid homage on their return to Africa. The exhibit is small but interesting and takes you through the most salient happenings in the history of the country. The Peace Memorial and Museum of Freetown provide insights into the most important people that helped shape the country.
Finally, Fourah Bay College in Freetown is a beautiful abandoned building that became a national monument in 1955 and was destroyed by a fire in 1999, during the civil war. It was the location of an education institution and later the headquarters of the now defunct Sierra Leone Government Railway.
While hunting (especially at the time of the Civil War) had a negative impact on local wildlife, and animals that you’d expect to see in other countries in Africa (such as leopards, lions, elephants and hyenas) are now only spotted in national reserves, Sierra Leone remains a good wildlife destination.
Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Moa River, is a good place for birdwatching. Expect to see various species of monkeys, and if you’re lucky, you may even spot crocodiles and the more elusive pygmy hippos. Plan to spend a couple of days for higher chances to see them; take wilderness walks and boat rides along the river; and make sure to pack a good pair of binoculars.
Just outside Freetown, Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary was created to help protect chimpanzees, which are at risk of extinction. The sanctuary works to rescue and rehabilitate abandoned or orphaned chimpanzees, still often taken by locals as pets and subsequently abandoned.
Other wildlife locations in Sierra Leone are Gola Forest Reserve and Outamba-Kilimi National Park.
Sierra Leone boasts many incredible beaches! Some of the best ones are just on the outskirts of Freetown. Tokeh Beach and River Number 2 Beach are on opposite sides of a lagoon. Both are lined by palm trees with incredibly fine, white sand and clear water. River Number 2 is managed by the local community, which also run a small restaurants that caters to tourists; a basic but clean guest house; and a small tourist market perfect to shop for souvenirs.
More beaches are found in the Banana Islands and in the more remote Turtle Islands. Keep in mind that getting to the latter is a 9-hour trip from Freetown, including a 6-hour car ride and a 3-hour boat ride, and that the islands are barely equipped to receive tourists so you’ll have to bring whatever you need for your stay.
As a rugged and remote destination, a trip to Sierra Leone requires careful packing to help you tackle all the challenges you’ll encounter. Keep in mind the weather is hot year round, with high chances of rain between May and October.
Claudia Tavani is a former human rights lawyer who abandoned her academic career to pursue a life of travel. She runs the web sites My Adventures Across The World, where she shares tips to travel more and better; and Strictly Sardinia, where she shares information about this marvelous island.