Sierra Leone travel guide
The name says it all. Freetown's primary getaway destination is a short boat ride off the southwestern tip of the peninsula. The two islands, connected by a small causeway, offer beautiful beaches and great forest hiking, respectively. The three guesthouses here range from basic to luxurious, and the local fishing communities will be happy to provide any visitors with a taste of the islands' palm wine. If neither relaxing in a beach hammock nor hilly forest walks are your thing, the guesthouses offer a range of water-based activities: snorkeling and diving, boat and fishing trips, even spearfishing.
Mostly famed for being the country were British ships-of-war would make landfall to release "recaptured" slaves after the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade, the area today known as Sierra Leone was also a site of the human trade before the British change of hearts. 30 km up the Sierra Leone River from Freetown, on Bunce Island, lies the country's only significant slave trading site. The ruins here can be underwhelming, but are one of the few locations, where captives are know to have been brought to North America and not Brazil or the Caribbean. Today, many families South Carolina and Georgia can trace their roots to this island.
Hollywood and Leonardo DiCaprio introduced the world to conflict diamonds with the blockbuster "Blood Diamonds" using the phenomenon's less official but more descriptive name. Today, mercenaries, limb-chopping rebels and war have, thankfully, all left Sierra Leone. Diamond smugglers are, however, still around. And while it can be tempting to buy some rough stones to cover a bit of travel expenses, amateurs are most likely to be hustled into buying fake or poor quality stones. Potential fortune hunters should make sure to use a reputable dealer, preferably in Freetown, and make sure to get the necessary export documents and a Kimberley Certification to prove that the gems are not conflict diamonds.
Centred on a large Cotton Tree, spreading itself out along the coastline and up and down the hillsides of the peninsula's interior, Freetown feels chaotic at times. Sierra Leone's capital - once you've got your bearings - has a few gems to offer besides the usual nightlife, national museum and markets Africa's capitals have on offer. The city centre is where the first freed slaves based themselves and their Krio Houses, beautiful wooden structures are still found all over the city. Freetown is also one of the most openly religious, and religiously tolerant, cities on the continent. Hundreds, if not thousands, of churches and mosques line the streets. Public transport is decorated with religious slogans. It's not uncommon to be blessed by people on the street and don't be too surprised if the immigration lady who's extending your visa suddenly begin to sing praising tunes about Jesus in an otherwise crowded office.
Some of the continent's best beaches are found an easy day or weekend trip from Freetown. Stretching all the way from Freetown to the bottom of the peninsula are white and golden coves of sand backed by palms and rainforest covered mountains. Out towards the Atlantic Ocean the water rolling in is a light see-through blue. Most famous is River No. 2 Beach after Bounty (the chocolate bar) set a 70's commercial here. It turns into a serious party spot on weekends. Closest to Freetown, Lakka Beach is the most convenient, while Tokeh Beach, just past No. 2, is probably our favourite white sands beach on the coast. For a secluded getaway, the last beach on the peninsula's western shore, Bureh Beach, offers perfect golden sand and surfing.
Loma, meaning "King", isn't a bad description. Mount Bintumani's peak reaches a modest 1945 metres, but it's the highest summit anywhere between Morocco and Cameroon. Reaching its top from, and returning to, one of the villages in the vicinity of the Lomas take two (approaching from the east) to five (approaching from the north-west) days of hard hiking. The hardship is worth it, as a palette of green views as far as Guinea is the prize once the ascent is completed. Taking a longer route will also offer fauna in the form of primates, birdlife and, possibly, snakes. The village chiefs' will be glad to provide accommodation for an appropriate offering to the village, but it's often a good idea to be self-reliant of rice. Villages are also good places to arrange porters and guides, just make sure they are equipped for the trip. Hiking during the rainy season have been described as "mad" and means getting soaked to the bone, no matter how rain proof your gear are, and adds "very, very slippery" to the characteristic of the routes (as we found out).
Sierra Leone's civil war in the late 90's was one of the bloodiest. Images of child soldiers, blood diamonds, ritual killings and cannibalism, have sadly been seen as common in African conflicts ever since. Criminally underfunded, a Peace Museum has now been opened in the old UN Special Court, which completed its mandate of prosecuting serious violations of international humanitarian law committed during the war. The Museum includes an exhibition on the conflict and the court proceedings, as well as a memorial garden and a small room of gifts from the Mongolian peacekeepers who protected the court. For scholars and those with a keen interest, all the court's documents are also kept by the Museum and it's possible to go through some of the thousands of witness accounts to get a better understanding of the atrocities. Entry is per much-needed donation.
Sierra Leone's only ecotourism project is well worth a visit. Set up in Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary in the middle of the Moa River, the site was initially built by Peace Corps volunteers before being raided and destroyed during the civil war. Now rebuild, it is again possible to enjoy the island's wildlife. Eleven different kinds of primates live her, including chimpanzees, Diana monkeys and endangered red howlers. This is also one of the best spots to hunt the elusive and endangered pygmy hippopotamus, though glimpses of these animals are only for the lucky few. The facilities offer tended accommodation, food (sometimes even beers), guided walks and boat tours, all very reasonably priced.