Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sierra Leone, The Land of the Mountain Lions

The main beach of Freetown. With a beach bar shack. Clothes are drying on the grass. 

Sierra Leone translates as the land of the mountain lion. It sounds beautiful and it is. It sounds scary, but it isn’t. Unless you have a fear of boats.

You will have to board one to get from the only international airport to the capital Freetown or the nearest resort. But first, is this West African country even worth considering as a tourist destination?

Definately! Sierra Leone boasts incredible scenery and the 402 kilometer long coastline includes some of the best and most unspoiled beaches in the world with white sand and blue waters. The climate is friendly to Europeans as you will rarely see temperatures outside the 24-30 degree range.

The country has however long been seen as a no go area for tourists. Understandably enough thanks to a decade long civil war which ended in 2002, cholera outbreaks and an infrastructure unable to cope with tourist expectations. Recent investments by the government and private companies are good news for tourists.

What to do?

'Quality junk' in Freetown. You've got to
love honest marketing. 
Sierra Leone is simply put a fantastic country with locals that do know the meaning of hospitality. An added bonus is their language. They speak English after their years as a British colony. That also explains some area names. Waterloo, Hastings, Man of War Bay, Pirate Bay, White Man’s Bay, New England and Destruction Bay can all be found around Freetown.

The city offers a huge street market and is a great spot to get visas to neighboring countries as the embassies are scattered around a relatively small area. Lumley beach comes with restaurants, nightclubs, bars, hotels and a golf course. There are no familiar chains, although Hilton will open a brand new hotel there in 2014. And when Hilton moves in, others follow.

Of course Sierra Leone is a lot more than Freetown, just be prepared for a trip way off the beaten track where what you usually take for granted is not. Not up for such holidays? Then there’s always paradise, or Banana Islands as it is called in Sierra Leone. There you’ll find a couple of hotels that will arrange for private transport from the airport.

Golden shoes for sale in the market.
Do note the matching car in the background.
In 2010 only 39,000 tourists visited the country. Numbers are increasing, but it will still take many years for it to become a mass market destination. So if the most impressive listing on your travel CV is Paris or Ibiza, you may want to think twice of going there.

Some issues

Electricity is scarce outside the capital, petty crime is not uncommon, many roads are in poor shape, there are few hospitals and many towns and villages do not even have hotels. The latter problem is usually solved by talking to the chief and asking for a guest house. You may technically get to stay there for free as they don’t charge for such, but you should pay a few dollars or so to show respect to the chief and the person or family who puts you up. There will also be begging, but in a more stylish manner than what I have seen elsewhere. A seven year old boy I met has picked up on the art of it. “I like the way you walk,” he told me, expecting a reward for his compliment.
Another hurdle to some may be the above mentioned boat trip from Lungi International Airport (FNE) to Freetown. The two are separated by a Tagrin, a rather large bay. You can in theory drive around it, but this will set you back 6-7 hours, and is in reality not done. That leaves four means of crossing the bay, all with a slight risk of your stomach contents becoming fish feed. The waves from the Atlantic Ocean can make the crossing pretty rough.

How to get from the airport

  1. The fastest and most comfortable way is to use Hovercraft that will take you to Aberdeen, the pretty side of the capital, in 20 minutes. Do not expect African prices, though. A ticket will set you back 40USD, the same as your second fastest option, Sea Coach. Both of them include a short minibus ride from the airport to the seaside, going through tiny villages on unpaved roads.
Sea Coach in front, Hovercraft in the background. 

  1. Sea Coach, is basically what it says. The plastic boat carries 12-15 passengers, depending on the amount of luggage. The two outboard engines each boasting 250 horsepowers will take you across in just over 30 minutes. You will be required to wear a life vest, and the atmosphere may be a little tense, depending on the weather and your fellow passengers. It doesn’t help that one of their boats is named “Good luck.” Sea Coach will also take you to Aberdeen, although a little closer to the centre of Freetown than Hovercraft.
It is especially reassuring that one of the Sea Coaches is named Good Luck. 
Don't expect to be served cocktails on board the hired boat.

  1. The most expensive boat crossing is to hire a boat taxi. There will not be any official ones, but if you ask around someone will always be ready to take you across. This is not recommended, as the quality of the boats on offer is questionable and the fact that you will most likely be overcharged. Sometimes you are out of options, though, especially on your way back to the airport.

  1. The last and only cheap boat option is the local car ferry which will cost you less than a dollar. There are some caveats though. Firstly, it will not leave until full, as is the case with most regular transport in Africa. That may take 1-7 hours. Secondly, it leaves from the ferry terminal which is 15 kilometers from the airport. A bus, taxi, shared taxi or motorcycle taxi will get you there. The car ferry will take you into downtown Freetown, so it is another 12-15 kilometers to go to Aberdeen, where most of the decent hotels are.
(5. If you have a rich uncle, there is actually also a helicopter stationed at the airport, but it only runs charter trips and will set you back a substantial amount of money if it is even available. A boat-free option, nevertheless.) 

This Is Africa

Taxi, Lungi style. 
 “T.I.A.” You may want to learn the phrase before even stepping on the continent. T.I.A. stands for “This Is Africa” and you will benefit from repeating it to yourself whenever something doesn’t go according to plan. Which means often. Just being able to say “T.I.A.” somehow has a therapeutic effect as it reassures you that the problems you may encounter are normal and not necessarily caused by you. Do note that the acronym occasionally comes with several exclamation marks.

Both Hovercraft and Sea Coach may stop scheduled crossings with no or very little notice. As I found out the hard way. T.I.A. You may want to call or visit the ferry companies way in advance as the official schedules are not necessarily correct. They were not when I was to return, something that left me in a poor bargaining position. I had to cross, the boat owner knew. He asked 200USD, I managed to haggle it down to 130. That was nearer to the value of the boat taking me across the bay than the value of the service. T.I.A. The vessel was not built for such a crossing, but it did the job. I arrived on the other side reasonably dry 45 minutes later, but I was helped ashore 15 kilometers from the airports. A motorcycle taxi transported me the last stretch. T.I.A.

Lungi International Airport. 
Tourism is an area of high priority. Sierra Leone National Tourist Board ( is working on a seven year plan until 2017 to improve facilities, to enhance sustainable tourism, to market their tourist attractions and to generally improve the image of Sierra Leone as a preferred tourist destination. They are definitely on the right track, but they do still have a long way to go and a lot of ground to cover before Sierra Leone is mentioned in the same sentence as Dominican Republic or Mauritius. That being said, few countries can offer a more unique scenery with everything from mountains and lakes to waterfalls and beaches but you must as a tourist be prepared to go back to basic. Traditional luxury is rare. Breathtaking nature experiences and some peace and quiet still go a long way.

How to get there

British Airways, Air France and Brussel Airlines will take you there on direct flights from the respective three European capitals. You can also travel from neighbouring countries by less known air carriers such as ASKY, Fly540 or Arik Air.