Chaotic transport and poor infrastructure might keep Sierra Leone off the mainstream tourist trail for a while yet but new flight choices could soon tempt the more adventurous traveller.
Dutch airline KLM will fly to Freetown three times a week from March 26, after a two-decade hiatus. It’s currently offering £470 returns from London or Manchester and there are signs that rivals are dropping prices, making a long weekend or week’s break more feasible.
So what are Sweet Salone’s top attractions? Here’s my favourite five:
5. The Sierra Leone Marathon
Okay, so I only ran the half distance – my body really wasn’t ready for 26.2 miles – but whatever you feel fit for, it’s worth making the journey for a race with a truly special atmosphere. The charity Street Child puts together a fantastic itinerary that allows runners to meet some of the kids they’re raising money to help, both in rural schools and the host town of Makeni.
This probably won’t be a comfortable trip, even if you choose the most expensive accommodation option, and there’s a fair chance you’ll hit some transport problems. But the runners I spoke to felt it just gave them a greater appreciation of how tough life can be out here. Likewise, none cared if the course measured a bit short. This isn’t about getting a PB, it’s about understanding the world, interacting with the lovely locals and doing what you can to help.
Race organisers offer 5k, 10k and volunteering options and the standard itinerary finishes up at the beach, meaning you pack in about as much of Sierra Leone as is possible in five days.
This trip would certainly leave a heck of an impression on your teenagers. The full itinerary is probably a bit tough going for younger kids but the Flump was made very welcome at Street Child’s race eve workshop sessions, where we heard from social workers about the work they do to help children. She also loved invading the pitch at an informal football match going on during race-registration – almost as much as the young players loved carting her off again.
4. Sundown at Lumley Beach
This two-mile stretch of sand – and the promenade behind it – comes into its own as the sun sinks into the Atlantic, subduing the daytime heat. One of the simplest joys of expat life here must be strolling – or even better taking a run – with the sound of rollers crashing ashore just before dark.
The beach is at its best on public holidays – Easter or Eid – when an esplanade packed with families enjoying a rare day of leisure together creates a special atmosphere. Snacks and drinks are easy to grab from vendors with portable grills and coolboxes, or else you can duck into one of the numerous bars and restaurants across the road.
Some have started placing tables on the sands in recent months but Chez Nous – set back from the hustle – was our favourite. It serves simple but well prepared dishes with sea views on one side and a backdrop of Aberdeen Bridge and the creek on the other. Freetown has fancier restaurants but dining here in sight of the setting sun, with good music at the right volume, made for our favourite mealtime experience.
There was plenty to keep the Flump occupied at Lumley, from running on the squeaky sands to stuffing her face with popcorn sold in bags balanced high on hawkers’ heads.
You’d want to watch out for areas where rubbish hasn’t been cleared – medical waste and needles are a hazard – and we kept her out of the water. In restaurants, the largely friendly and patient staff, coupled with the freedom afforded by outside terraces, offer the rare opportunity to take a toddler and still enjoy a civilised meal.
3. Tiwai Island
This community initiative, supported by the Environmental Foundation for Africa, has started putting on weekend trips from Freetown to this island retreat, marooned by the Moa River, 200 miles inland. Go midweek and you might have the place to yourself, save for the handful of staff who tend the facilities and keep you fed.
You could easily pass several hours here stretched in a reed hammock for a read or a doze. Lying in total darkness listening to the night-time sounds of the jungle seems impossibly intrepid, even if you are stretched out on a soft mattress. But there’s plenty to get you off your back in this wildlife haven, home to 11 types of primate, elusive pygmy hippos and 135 species of birds, though you’ll probably need the help of a guide to spot them.
For me, this island is best experienced from the river. Being silently punted upstream was like being lost in a storybook adventure. It would have been a magical moment even without the stunning white-throated blue swallows dipping around us, huge ibis and hornbills flapping overhead and chimps calling unseen from the treetops.
Taking a toddler to the jungle is always going to be a challenge. This basic camp was badly damaged by storms in October 2015 and was still being put back in order when we visited, so wasn’t quite the relaxing haven it might have been. I was glad I didn’t have the Flump with me.
For older children, there surely can’t be a greater attraction than monkeys careering from tree to tree. That sight even brings out the child in miserable old sods like me. But it’s worth taking plenty of books, cards or other games to keep them occupied in the lulls between walks, boat trips and meal times.
The solar power can charge electronic devices if they can’t be prised away from them.
2. Bureh Beach
Okay, it could almost have been any of the beaches on the Western Peninsula: Lively Lakka, exclusive Tokeh, quiet Hamilton or super Sussex with its crashing waves and sumptuous Italian cuisine at Franco’s. Provided they’re rubbish-free (which can’t be guaranteed anywhere after heavy rains), each offers a stunning strip of sand – take your pick from gold, silver, platinum or the banana-yellow of Kent – backed by lush mountain rainforest.
While the white sands and safe shallows of River Number 2 are hard to beat, we loved the laid-back vibe of Bureh where surfers, backpackers, Lebanese, locals and expats mingle in a way that’s quite unlike anywhere else in the country.
We lucked out with a particularly well-placed chalet at Maroon View guesthouse, with the curve of beach to our right and waves splashing the rocks to our left. It’s about as close as you can get to the water and the perfect place to sit out enjoying the host’s excellent beach food.
But whichever is your beach of choice, few things can compare with staying overnight; dropping off to the sound of waves lapping the shore and waking for a pre-breakfast dip.
Flumpo couldn’t get enough of plunging into the sea. While strong currents, steep gradients and broken glass can be a hazard anywhere the Atlantic meets land, Bureh is one of those beaches crossed by a shallow river that allows kids to play without getting battered by waves.The beach’s guesthouses are about as well set up for children as anywhere and renting a chalet allows you to enjoy a sea breeze with your beer outside, happy in the knowledge that kids are sleeping safely just the other side of the door.
1. Experiencing life in a rural village
Nothing places you in Africa quite like rolling into a village of circular, mud-walled homes with thatched roofs, to be greeted by a welcoming party of excited children (and often adults). It really is like walking into a Comic Relief video, as youngsters clamour for a feel of that funny white skin and demand “snap me” when you fish out your camera to capture the moment.
The prospect of being led to the chief’s house to pay your respects sounds like an intimidating ritual when read from the pages a guide book. In reality, you feel more like a royal visitor being honoured with a procession.
The recommended offerings – things like tea, sugar and soap – can seem pitiful as you pull them from your high-tech backpack but were gratefully received in my experience. And it’s easy to tell from their basic homes and simple country cloth garments that these chiefs aren’t the sort getting fat on corruption.
Once the commotion caused by your arrival has died down – though it never completely does – you can properly take in your surroundings. The air, perfumed by firewood and chilis cooking in palm oil, is punctured by the rhythmic hammering of women using giant pestles to husk rice. Wrinkled grandmothers bathe naked infants with buckets in the open air as men wander back from the fields, cutlasses in hand.If you get to sit round a fire sharing a delicious traditional meal from the same plate as villagers then all the better.
Moments like these, when you realise you’re somewhere truly different, are increasingly rare. That’s why both the One With The Common Sense and I rated our individual experiences of village life our most special in Sierra Leone.
We didn’t venture far upcountry as a family so the Flump never made it to a village proper. When I camped with friends on the dirt floor of a school classroom during a trip to the mountains, we had to venture into the bush for toilet trips. Even the most adventurous of parents might consider that a bit too tough going for kids. However, I’ve no doubt that children would be a huge hit with their rural peers if you had cause to stop by for an hour, and the Flump certainly loved getting attention from other youngsters fascinated by her blonde hair and blue eyes.
A more child-friendly option might be Rogbonko Village Retreat, where visitors stay in traditional houses with indoor bathing and toilet facilities (but no power). While it sounds like a Disneyfied version of African life, those who’ve enjoyed local food and crafts from the locals give it strong reviews on Tripadvisor.
There are many things I’d have loved to do but never found the time.
Visiting the National Railway Museum, exploring slave history at Bunce Island and birding by boat up the Scarcies River are just a few of them but I might yet get to tick some of those off the list.
Sierra Leone might not be for everyone but there’s definitely plenty to enthral those who do venture to this corner of West Africa. It might not be the easiest place to live or travel but few people can leave the country without the experience touching them in some way.
So, when are you flying out?
- Sierra Leone Marathon: Chris Parkes/Street Child
- Lumley beach photo: DFID/Flickr
- Village scenes: Jody Ketteringham/Mike Burton