Think Sierra Leone and tragic images of overcrowded Ebola treatment centres are more likely to come to mind than scenes of tropical paradise. Yet this gem on the West African coast deserves to be known for more than Ebola, blood diamonds or its violent civil war.
Beyond the harrowing headlines, Sierra Leone boasts a hidden paradise: palm-fringed, white-sand beaches made famous by a 1980s Bounty advert, and lush mountainous rainforests that lead you to the sea. It’s also the setting for what’s dubbed “the world’s most worthwhile marathon”, started by British NGO Street Child in 2012. Imagine pounding the hot, red earth in 30 degree heat with locals pausing from their washing to wave and cheer you on, as chickens get out of your way and small children run alongside you shouting “you can do it, you can do it”.
It was the Street Child race (admittedly the 10k rather than the full marathon) that led me to spend a week in Sierra Leone in October 2015, 17 days before the country was officially declared Ebola-free. The race itself would be reason enough to go to Sierra Leone – the energy it generates is electric – but once I arrived I soon realised that there is far more to visiting this unexplored country than I imagined. It’s a country that draws you right into its vibrant heart, making you feel like one of its own.
Stepping off the plane in Lungi Airport felt like entering another world. Being greeted by men dressed head-to-toe in disease protection clothing was an unusual, and slightly unnerving, welcome.
The risk of contracting Ebola at this stage was very slim (and is now almost nil), but the posters telling you how to identify Ebola were a very real reminder of what this small country the size of the island of Ireland has been through. Almost 4,000 people have died in Sierra Leone since the epidemic began here in early 2014. (There were more than 2,500 deaths in north-western neighbour Guinea and nearly 5,000 in Liberia to the south-east.)
Ebola is a viral disease that starts with similar symptoms to flu: fever, sore throat, joint pain and muscle weakness. Symptoms develop into vomiting, rashes and problems with the kidneys and liver; after this internal bleeding begins, including from the eyes and ears. The disease is spread through contact with highly infectious bodily fluids. In Sierra Leone, much of the spread was attributed to burial rituals that involve washing the body of the deceased; whole families, and communities, were wiped out as result. People stopped shaking hands with each other, schools were shut down and movement was restricted.
On every journey I was regularly stopped at Ebola checkpoints and politely asked by armed men to get out, wash my hands and have my temperature checked. Wherever you go there are Ebola prevention posters, people wearing “Kick out Ebola” t-shirts and billboards with photos of children on grandparents’ laps saying “Do not push away child Ebola survivors – end the stigma now”.
Smartly dressed in a white shirt, with neatly braided hair and her backpack on, Mariatu, 12, shyly chatted to me as she made her way to the newly re-opened school. She told me that her mother, father and two of her siblings had died of Ebola. She explained that her 21-year-old brother is now head of household, and it’s up to him to find the funds to ensure that she and her brother Mohammed, 15, have enough to eat and can continue their education. Her family is fortunate enough to have the support of Street Child, but others are not so lucky, and Sierra Leone could be faced with a lost generation of Ebola orphans if action isn’t taken fast.
The kind-hearted people of Sierra Leone are no strangers to suffering. In 1991 a bloody civil war began, renowned for its use of child soldiers and for the grotesque amputations performed on civilians, including children. The rebel Revolutionary United Front forces largely funded their arms through the trade of illegal blood diamonds with Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted of heinous war crimes in 2012. Some of this story was told in the Oscar-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond. But the war ended in 2002 and the country has been working to shed this reputation ever since.
In spite of the hardships caused by civil war and Ebola, people here are have a remarkably generous spirit and welcome visitors with an extraordinary warmth.
In hot, bustling Makeni – the fourth largest city in Sierra Leone, situated inland in the north of the country – there is a tangible excitement in the lead up to the marathon. People are so pleased that you’re there. The very presence of international visitors is a sign that things are on the up, that the country is open for business once more and a return to normality is on the horizon.
During the evenings at The Clubhouse Bar – a social enterprise started by Street Child – expats, runners and locals alike gather to watch Champions League football and share a local Star beer together, avoiding the intense monsoon downpours.
On an early morning training run down pot-holed dirt roads lined with small brightly coloured houses and lines of washing, children run out to greet you. They wave, jumping around and shouting “oporto, ow di bodi” – Krio for “white man, how are you?” “Oporto” became a very familiar word during my trip. It is a hangover from when Portuguese traders first came to Sierra Leone in the fifteenth century.
Later on, walking through the markets selling vegetables, patterned waxed cloth, and copious quantities of pungent dried fish, people greet you and smile, even if they do look a little bewildered to see you.
In spite of a 4am start to get the race underway at first light when it is coolest, running in Sierra Leone is hot work, and the humidity is around 90%. This is not a run for the faint-hearted, but with distances from 5k to full marathon, it attracts all types. Whatever distance you do, whether you’re local or international, there is such a strong unity and adrenalin-fuelled excitement that it all feels a bit like a big party; a hot, painful, sweaty party; and a party that starts with a very early wake-up call, but a party nonetheless.
This is an annual event that usually takes place in May (the 2015 race was pushed back to reduce the risk of runners contracting Ebola), and there’s an online sign-up for international visitors.
Options for places to stay in Makeni range from camping on the floor with bucket showers to staying at the four-star Wusum Hotel. I opted for Makama Lodge. True to the Sierra Leonean way, we were greeted like old friends when we arrived, despite being in a state of near-comatose tiredness after a long overnight journey from London. We had missed breakfast, so they cooked us a traditional chilli omelette and brought us much needed (instant) coffee. Accommodation is fairly rudimentary, but the rooms are large, pretty clean and have en-suites (with temperamental showers); plus the staff are so kind that luxury doesn’t matter as much.
The Wusum struck me as over-priced but what it does have in its favour is a swimming pool, and that is not to be sniffed-at when you’re sweltering away. Thankfully non-residents can pay a couple of dollars to use it too.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy is just 48 years. The economy had been showing promising growth since the civil war ended but the outbreak of Ebola placed a significant spoke in the wheels of progress.
Official figures state that the epidemic caused the economy a huge contraction of 21.5% in 2015. The concrete ruins of half-built houses, now home only to weeds, are a visual reminder that Ebola put everything on hold, and that life is fragile here. Unsurprisingly, it did no favours to the tourism industry either. Indeed, Sweet Salone – the local name for Sierra Leone – is now so far off the beaten track that tourism is barely existent.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any upmarket resorts or desirable destinations. There are. And although I didn’t have the chance to check out the pygmy hippos of Outamba-Kilimi National Park or the eleven species of primates at Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, there is certainly much to entice you to explore.
From busy Freetown, the capital, where most of the nightlife exists, you can travel to the nearby beaches or to the eco-tourism resorts on Banana island, or to the UNESCO former slave fortress at Bunce Island.
Getting from Lungi airport to Freetown involves crossing an estuary. You can take either the ferry (which takes an hour or so but cheaper and drops you in the less convenient east end of Freetown). Or the Seacat/Seacoach service which takes about half an hour across the bay and drops at Aberdeen in the west end, which is better for the beach.
Unfortunately the country is not always set up to make life easy for the international traveller. Cashpoints, for example, are not easy to find, even in Freetown. And if you do find one, there’s no guarantee that it will work. So it’s best to take pounds or dollars with you, as both are easily changeable by local “dollar men” who you can find in downtown Freetown. Some bars, hotels, banks and the airport will also change money for you, but they may charge a terrible rate.
Wifi isn’t always that easily accessible, and is often intermittent, though most upper end hotels do have it. And public transport is very public: expect two people in the front passenger seat and up to five in the back of a standard car. It’s certainly advisable to hire a car and driver. Flash Vehicle Rentals is the place to go.
Crime levels are not too high compared to other parts of Africa, but extreme poverty does mean that expensive cameras and phones can prove a real temptation, so keep your valuables out of sight. It’s also best not to travel at night if you can avoid it.
Having said all this, the fact that the country is not expecting international visitors does have its upsides. You have a unique window into the reality of life for Sierra Leoneans, and are welcomed by its people in such a genuine, open way that you rarely experience in places where tourists are regarded as normal, or even a necessary evil.
If you can, visit a remote local village: you won’t find a more enthusiastic, raucous and colourful reception. The whole brightly dressed community comes out to sing, dance and bang drums (or petrol cans, water bottles and anything else that makes a noise), some wearing costumes and rubber masks that look unbearably hot in the scorching midday sun. Any willing participants will be dragged into the festivities too. If you’re particularly lucky, you might be treated to dances showing the battle of good gods against evil devils and you might get to try some delicious local stews.
Plus, the lack of tourism means that the country’s exquisite white sand beaches, reputably the best in Western Africa, are all but deserted.
Jolting along on a clapped out bus, with the door held shut by a makeshift metal pole and no air-conditioning, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a journey that would not conjure fond memories. But despite having to peel myself off the sticky plastic seats at the end, the hot three hour journey from Makeni to Tokeh Beach, near Freetown, was one of the best ways to see the country.
The scenes were arresting: verdant post-monsoon plains; bustling, brightly painted town centres full of terrifying driving; a glimmering aerial view of the fishing town Tombo, with its sea of corrugated steel roofs glinting in the sun and a faint smell of fresh fish hitting you as you pass it.
Then the anticipation builds as you wind through lush green mountains and get your first glimpse of the ocean. Stepping onto soft, white sand and looking at unspoilt, palm-fringed coastline as far as the eye could see, with rain-forested mountains just behind, I could not quite believe I was in ravaged Sierra Leone.
With palm trees rustling in the warm breeze and perfect, empty beaches, it is easy to see why the Bounty team thought that this tropical paradise would be a great location for their famous 1980s advert. I wonder whether this deserted dreamland would have stayed so empty had the civil not begun in 1992.
The Place in Tokeh Beach is a top notch hotel. While Tokeh Beach Resort is fairly basic, its whitewashed rooms are clean and tidy, and its lodges open directly onto one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.
Sunsets and skies in Sierra Leone are impressive and dramatic, and Tokeh is a great beach for a sundowner. The barman will happily knock you up one of his delicious secret recipe cocktails, or you can buy a fresh coconut to drink for about $1 from local beach sellers. There are hammocks, and loungers that lie under palm umbrellas, and staff will light a night time beach-fire for you to sit around as you star gaze and listen to the sea.
Behind the beach is a river that heads into the rainforest, where locals offer to take you on painted, wooden fishing boats to see local wildlife. There’s an alligator who comes out to say hello in the mornings too.
You see fishermen carrying freshly caught barracuda and red mullet up the beach and straight to the resort kitchen. It could not be fresher, and if you’re a seafood fan, the good beach resorts are some of the best places for food in Sierra Leone. The country is not known for its culinary delights, and seafood makes a change from more standard jollof rice, groundnut soup, chilli omelette and plantain.
According to those in the know, the coast has great surf hotspots too, like Bureh Beach. There are miles of empty beaches tempting you to explore, and I was itching to go to River No 2’s long white sand strip separating the ocean from the fresh water. My only regret was not staying longer.
With very few tourists anywhere to be seen, happening across Sierra Leone’s coastline has a similar feeling to seeing a band in a tiny venue just before they get famous. It’s as if you are in on a well-kept secret just before everyone else wakes up and realises what they’re missing.
On 7 November 2015, Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free and Foreign Office Travel Advice and World Health Organisation guidance both dropped their “essential travel only” suggestions. There are of course chances of other small flare ups, so it’s worth checking for updates before you travel.
Sierra Leonean travel is back in business. There is no point pretending that everything will be plain sailing, and there will likely be a few hiccups along the way, but this is a country where you can’t fail to have an adventure, and one where you arrive a visitor and leave a friend.
After British forces helped secure peace at the end of the civil war, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the attractions of Sierra Leone to foreign visitors. He said that it has “unspoilt beaches, beautiful tropical islands, world-class fishing and diving, and a rich cultural and historical legacy linked to its role in the slave trade and beyond”. Perhaps now is the time to heed the advice of this slightly unexpected travel rep and go and see for yourself what Sierra Leone has to offer.