Sierra Leone is back on its feet, and the locals are delighted. It may be a while yet before its roads are rebuilt and its hoteliers get accustomed to welcoming more than a handful of guests at a time. But with a British airline launching a new direct service from London to Freetown this autumn, life in this easy-going tropical nation is beginning to change. And the beaches are as alluring as ever, says Alan Duncan.
"A lion? Where?” I ask, grappling for my binoculars. Darlington gestures north to one of the angular ridges of the Peninsula Mountains and back down to the southern end of the range. I quickly pan the territory before allowing my binoculars to fall to my chest.
“No lion?” Darlington asks. “Not even close,” I reply. “How foh do?” he says in Krio, shrugging his shoulders. What’s a man to do? What indeed?
Of course, we’d have more luck spotting a lion in the Serengeti than stalking our prey from a boat off the shores of Sierra Leone’s Western Area Peninsula. There are no lions in Sierra Leone. Our mission is to see if we can make out a lion-shape from the outline of the mountains, a jagged slope becoming the face, a ridge the shoulders and rolling hills the muscular back. If the legend is to be believed, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Da Sintra arrived off these waters in 1462 and saw in the topography of the hills the shape of a crouching lion. He subsequently named the land Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountains), later becoming the British colony of Sierra Leone.
While our intermittent ‘lion spotting’ diversion has so far led to nothing more than mild sun-stroke and the sense of a deepening mystery, I have struggled to believe the alternative theory behind the country’s name, which is that Da Sintra somehow misconstrued the rumblings of thunder for the distant roar of lions.
Still, while Da Sintra didn’t take home a captive lion to show for his exploits, he returned with a name no less captivating to this day. And in the wake of his vessel lay a land unexplored, of unusually high and rugged emerald mountains rising majestically by the sea, teeming with wildlife and hemmed in by long stretches of pristine beaches, rocky capes, waterfalls, miniature islands and bird-filled bays. Sierra Leone then, as now, was a country of singular beauty.
Victorian adventurer Mary H Kingsley, who visited the country in 1894, remarked that “Sierra Leone appears at its best when seen from the sea.” Over a hundred years later, I too am struck by how high the mountains appear from sea-level. This is the only place in West Africa where mountains rise by the ocean, the highest an impressive 900 metres. Extending over 40 kilometres and clad in swathes of primary rainforest which in places almost runs into the Atlantic, the Sierra Leone coastline looks more like a Caribbean island than the coasts of Senegal or Ghana.
Indeed, by the late 1980s Sierra Leone had built a fledgling tourism industry based predominantly on the allure of its beaches to the French jet-set – the Gallic influence still evident in the “Bonjour!” that often greets Europeans in coastal villages. But what are the beaches like now? They are unspoilt and come in all shapes and sizes. You could even decide which one to visit from the colour of the sand alone.
Golden brown would send you off to Kent beach; medium tan to John Obeh; yellow to Sussex; and snow white, to the unimaginatively named but awe-inspiring River No.2, the setting for one of those ‘Taste of Paradise’ chocolate commercials in the ‘70s. Or you could try the wilderness of Black Johnson where the fair sand has the curious effect of leaving you with blackened feet.
With our lion search called off, I decide to make mine a warm yellow and head inland towards the small seaside village called Bureh Town on the southern end of the peninsula. It’s flanked by spectacular coconut palms and a sweeping bay. Two European would-be surfers are making hard work of the calm conditions. Darlington laughs as the stouter of the two does a kind of break-dance into the water. In a region of dangerous tidal currents, these waters are unusually placid, making them perfect for swimming and snorkeling but unlikely to excite a hardcore surfer (the 110-kilometre expanse of beach on Turner’s Peninsula heading towards the Liberian border is, however, a different proposition altogether).
A couple of hundred metres from shore lies Maroon Island, anchored in clear blue waters, its trees forming an uneven crown while the gentle tide sketches sandy crescents in and around the rocks. But for the presence of fish eagles and a colony of reclusive crab-eating sooty mangabeys, the island remains uninhabited. The simian residents, I’m told by one of the local fixers, Tommy le Magnifique, have devised a technique whereby they use their tails as lures in crab holes, waiting for a bite before hauling both tail and dinner out in one action. Judging by the size of the crabs dished up as ‘chop’ by Tommy’s crew, I imagine that this must be a painful process.
As I plunge into the water, immersing myself in this idyll, my mind drifts to my last trip to the UK. I arrived on a cold February morning and stepped into a black cab at Victoria.
“Been anywhere nice?” asked the driver.
“Yes, actually,” I replied, “Sierra Leone.” I could just as easily have said Never Never Land.
“Si-e-rra Leone!?” he bellowed. “Isn’t it a bit dodgy over there?”
“No,” I replied, “it’s probably safer than London.”
Moments like this encapsulate the perception of a country still synonymous with war and so-called blood diamonds. But Sierra Leone’s dramatic reversal of fortunes has led to more than half a decade of peace, stability and rapid economic growth. While many travellers still arrive in Freetown’s Lungi International Airport expecting to have their survival skills tested to the limit, Ray Mears style, the closest you’ll come to honing these reflexes will be on a bumpy eight-minute Russian chopper ride across the estuary of the Sierra Leone River and onto the mainland.
Freetown is a bustling, enchanting city nestling in the cusp of the world’s third largest natural harbour. Recent years have seen a boom in hotel construction with rooms now far exceeding demand, not that this has brought down prices. There are vistas of sea and mountain from every turn while the Victorian school uniforms, colonial architecture and names like Liverpool Street and Gloucester Street recall an age gone by. Founded in 1787 on the promise of freedom and later becoming the frontline base in the British fight against slavery, over 70,000 slaves were ‘recaptured’ and liberated under the gargantuan arms of the central Cotton Tree, the city’s principal landmark. The melting pot of people from mixed ethnic backgrounds became known as the Krios with quaint names like Darlington Davies or Tommy Campbell.
With the time reaching 5pm on Bureh, Tommy, the chef, emerges with “lunch” from an invisible kitchen behind a curtain of palm trees – char-grilled lobster and a handful of chips. Having worked as a fishing guide, he is, like most Sierra Leoneans, surprisingly resourceful. I ask Tommy about his angling adventures off Sherbro Island. “Tarpon!” he replies. “We broke de world record.”
All I know about tarpon is that they are big silver game-fish. Did I make the trip to “To-tool” before the rains, he asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“It was great.”
In a land with the lion’s share of heavenly beaches, the Turtle Islands add a surreal twist – eight small palm-ringed islands floating lazily in olive waters behind Sherbro. They have more than a passing resemblance to the Maldives.
As Tommy talks to Darlington about wrestling big fish and evening bonfires, I ponder the fact that for most visitors the Peninsula Mountains represent a natural frontier. Why go up-country when you can find more than a holiday’s worth of fine experiences on the Peninsula, within a few miles of Freetown? Inflated car hire prices and disproportionately long travel times in a country about the size of Scotland are disincentive enough. While the landscape in areas like Kabala in the north and the Loma Mountains in the northwest is breathtaking, the roads are a cocktail that usually leaves passengers shaken and stirred.
But things are changing: the rebuilding of the Peninsula road along the coast south of Freetown from Lumley to Kent is half complete and the construction of highways to the Guinean border and to Bo, the gateway to the south, promise relief.
The country’s main National Park, Outamba-Kilimi, set in jungle-savannah mosaic straddling the Guinean border in northern Sierra Leone, offers commendable facilities and excellent opportunities for spotting hippos, primates and elephants. The President of Sierra Leone, Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, recently signed a ground-breaking agreement with Britain’s RSPB to save 75,000 hectares of the Gola Forests in the south – reputedly one of Africa’s prime biodiversity sites – from logging. Local people from seven chiefdoms now patrol the reserve as rangers. “It’s a success,” says Daniel Siaffa from the Sierra Leone Conservation Society. “Apart from rare birds, we have recorded healthy populations of leopards, bongos, forest elephants, duikers and a full set of primate species.”
Separated from Gola West by the cascading Moa River, the 12 sq km Tiwai Island Game Reserve boasts an excellent eco-camp and is refuge to one of the world’s densest populations of monkeys, as well as chimps and the globally-threatened pygmy hippopotamus. It is an island of primordial beauty. In April, a BBC documentary entitled Wildlife in a War Zone captured a landmark image of a pygmy hippo in the wild in Tiwai, before – in what became a nationwide survey – reaching the astonishing conclusion that Sierra Leone’s wildlife had emerged from the war largely unscathed.
Appropriately for a land named after a mountain range, one of Sierra Leone’s genuine treasures is Mount Bintumani, which at 2000 metres is the highest peak in West Africa west of Mount Cameroon, and whose forested hills and valleys house an incredibly rich and diverse fauna, including leopards, elephants, rare antelopes and endemic bird species. If the precedent set in Gola could be extended to reserves like this, and include the endangered Peninsula Forests, then Sierra Leone could truly be said to be planning responsibly for its future.
With an hour’s sunlight remaining, we swim to the boat, planning our departure. I ask Darlington if we should “turn de petrol” (refuel, that is) now or further down the coast. “Which petrol?” he asks. I smile, slowly revolving towards land, with the prospect of palm wine and a night of star-gazing ahead. If you’re prepared to dig that little bit deeper into your pockets and travel to Sierra Leone, can take the rough with the smooth and are ready for a sprinkling of “how foh do?”, then you’re sure to find yourself on the edge of some lost Utopia.
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