Miller Guidebooks Present: Sierra Leone

Originally Sent November 27, 2011


            Sierra Leone: a land of lush rolling hills; of yet unexplored, near impenetrable rainforests; of pristine, white sand tropical beaches.  A country blessed with vast mineral resources—diamonds, gold—yet unable to rise above the pervasive poverty strangling it. A people still healing from self-inflicted wounds, struggling to define themselves after more than a decade of brutal civil war. Sierra Leone: the true African experience.

            Welcome to Miller Guide Books Presents: Sierra Leone. Within these pages you will find everything you need to know to get the most out of your vacation to this exotic African nation.  Whether you’re looking to rough it in the jungle or simply soak in the sun (and the booze) on one of the country’s many truly sublime beaches, we’ve got you covered. From Freetown to the village whose name you can’t pronounce, we’ve done it all, so come along and let’s experience it together.

 

A Brief Background

Sandwiched between the countries of Guinea and Liberia, on Africa’s western coast, Sierra Leone is an exceptionally beautiful destination. However, an extraordinarily savage civil war brought the country to its knees less than a decade ago, and in 2002 (the year the war was finally brought to an end) Sierra Leone was officially the poorest country in the world. Significant progress has been made since then, no doubt buoyed by the great number of diamonds swimming beneath its rolling hills, but the tourism industry is still practically nonexistent. As such, be prepared to eat, sleep, and travel as a Sierra Leonean would. But more importantly, be prepared to experience a vacation unlike any you’ve likely experienced before.

 

Freetown

 Poised precariously upon the steep terminus of a rocky peninsula, a protrusion of lush hills rolling seismographically out from the mainland, Freetown is like the poor African equivalent of San Francisco. And like its Californian cousin, Freetown is an experience unto itself, a city worthy of its renown not for its many attractions but for the sheer audacity of its locality. Home to roughly a million souls, and more than its fair share of gorgeous beaches, the city alone is worth the trip. (But is hardly the only reason the come.)

 

Getting There and Finding Your Way Around

The flight from Banjul International Airport lasted a mere 55 minutes and before we knew it, Emily and I were standing on the tarmac at Lungri International Airport. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and we still had a long ways to go before we reached the Peace Corps Transit House, where we would be spending the night. Not only was the house on the far side of Freetown, at present we weren’t even on the same geologic feature as the capital—the airport is on an entirely separate peninsula, requiring new arrivals to take a ferry or, for those with a more disposal income, a hovercraft or helicopter.

So after exchanging some American dollars for Leone—my good ole’ friend Benjamin Franklin fetched me a whopping 440,000 Le—we caught a taxi headed for the ferry. The 45-minute journey aboard the buoyantly crowded vessel offered beautiful views of the expansive capital city, its outer reaches crawling up the steep banks of hills too busy falling into the ocean to care. The scene was made all the more brilliant thanks to the heavenly conflagration burning in the western sky, but this also presented a considerable challenge: I knew roughly where our final destination lay, including the fact that it was about as far from the ferry terminal as you could get, but beyond that I knew next to nothing about navigating the city, a feat we were now going to have to accomplish in the dark.

We reached the Kissy Ferry Terminal with about a half hour of daylight remaining and were immediately accosted by men with private cars wishing to drive the two whites to their destination (for many times the cost of a taxi ride, of course). Brushing aside that first wave of solicitors, we started walking up the winding road in search of a taxi. Along the way, we struck up a conversation with a man we took to be a taxi driver, and after agreeing on a price to take us into the city’s center, we approached his car only to find out it wasn’t a taxi at all. But since we had already agreed, and given the distinct lack of yellow-painted taxis in the vicinity, we went along with it, hopped in his disheveled Toyota Camry, and were off.

Six-thirty on a Wednesday and Freetown was in motion, busy exhaling the masses from its center, the time for small-time commerce over, and into the sea of ramshackle abodes that encapsulate it. On the streets, all was pandemonium. The city’s main arteries could not handle the steady stream of cars filing into them and were quick to clog, while whole battalions of motorcyclists zipped between the trapped vehicles, forming a harrowing two-lane highway down the center line. But it wasn’t just vehicular motion that lent itself to the feeling of chaos: hordes of dark-skinned faces filled the street’s periphery, all marching in the same direction; a mass migration out of the city’s center. “It’s very hard to find a taxi this time of day,” our driver informed us. “There aren’t nearly enough cars for all the people.”

 As we neared downtown, the traffic only got worse, and our driver, refusing to become another victim of the gridlock, would suddenly duck down some impossibly narrow, frighteningly steep side alley in search of a different route. Outside our windows day became night, and the city slipped by as if in a dream, our driver following roads that seemed to make no sense at all. One moment we would find ourselves at the base of an intervale, precipitous slopes rising in every direction; the next we would be snaking along the crest of a high ridge, an ocean of twinkling lights gently rolling beneath us.

With downtown now behind us, our driver set about trying to find us a taxi that would finish the journey, but after 20 minutes of driving around, fearing that we had found ourselves in a scam, Em and I demanded he let us out, which he did. After several failed attempts, we finally hailed a taxi that agreed to take us to Signal Hill, our final destination. Twenty-five minutes later our car rounded a corner near the apex of the aforementioned hill and we sighted a blue sign featuring the red and white stripes of our homeland: Peace Corps headquarters.  We had made it, alive and with most of our money still to be spent.

 

Where to Stay

After two nights at the Peace Corps Hostel, a sprawling two-story house that we happened to have completely to ourselves, free of charge, it was time to leave the crowded heights and seek out some sun and sand at one of those famous beaches we kept hearing about. So we headed out to Aberdeen, a large rocky outcropping at the northwestern most tip of the peninsula, upon which sat the majority of Freetown’s hotels. Starting at the rock’s base and heading back south toward the mainland ran Lumley Beach, a wide band of white sand stretching out for miles, its scenic beauty bolstered by a backdrop of impossibly green hills rolling playfully out toward their final plunge into the deep blue. And it was here, at this meeting of rock and sand, that we found the Family Kingdom Resort.

Perhaps not as luxurious as its steep price tag would suggest, in terms of location, the Family Kingdom could not be beat. A mere 30 second walk from the beach, it more than satisfied our needs, and after purchasing a bottle of Johnny Walker Red (a birthday present) we made the short journey out to the shore for some serious fun in the sun. And as it happened, the fun came to us: not long after sitting down, a group of young men approached us carrying a monkey.

Emily, animal lover that she is, was immediately enamored with the little primate and rushed up to play with it. At first exceedingly shy, the simian was soon overcome by curiosity, and, reaching out with his human-like hand, pinched Em’s stomach, then quickly withdrew the hand and smelled it. Apparently pleased with the smell, this Curious George again reached out and took a handful of Em’s belly fat, this time letting a finger slip into her belly button, and again inhaled the sweet odor. Over and over again, Chico, as he was called, repeated this un-gentlemanly deed, while Emily devolved into fits of laughter.   

 

Where to Eat and Drink

Darkness fell on the night of October 21st, twenty-four years to the day since my birth, and Emily and I got dressed for a nice dinner and a night out. Heeding the advice of the hotel’s owner, we walked the short distance to Alex’s, a bar and restaurant overlooking Man O’ War Bay, and got a table at water’s edge. Below, on a narrow strip of beach, a shirtless man was struggling to attract the attention of the affluent diners—white to the last man—by swallowing fire. Time and again he would lower a burning stick into his open mouth, and on several occasions was seized by a fit of coughs upon doing so, but this did not stop him. Impressed by his dedication, I held out a 2,000 Le note, which he snatched up before being chased off by the restaurant staff.

Not long after this our dinner arrived. And oh! what a dinner it was: Emily, with her spinach and fish gratin, and I, with my filet mignon kabobs (cooked medium-rare, as ordered), both agreed, it was the best meal either of us had eaten since coming to the continent 10 months earlier. And with the final bill totalling more than 160,000 Le, it was also unquestionably the most expensive. But it was worth every penny (um, I mean Leone).

After dinner we jumped in a taxi and drove to the far end of Lumley Beach, where we found Atlantic Bar and Restaurant, which, according to the large sign painted on its outer wall, had been “Serving the biggest lobster since 1971.” But we hadn’t come for lobster, we had come in search of a good time, and that is exactly what we found. Inside, a horseshoe-shaped bar sat in the corner of a large open-air room, the western facade of which opened directly onto the beach, and a severely worn yet oddly eloquent pool table sat just beyond the bar like a once-proud man sits in a retirement home long after his prime.  A healthy mix of well-off Freetowners and diamond-hungry expatriates filled nearly every corner of the room, the exception being the dance floor, where apack of moderately attractive prostitutes were patiently laying in wait for their inebriated prey to come to them.

We found a table near the bar and struck up a conversation with two expats—one a British man who was a part of a diamond mining operation, the other a very well travelled Indian man selling cigarettes—but my attention was irresistibly drawn to the green, scarred felt of the billiards table. A local man, who had obviously played on the lopsided table many many times, had won one game after another and was clearly in a groove by the time I challenged him; it was a good game, and I even had first shot on the 8-ball, but I, too, ultimately fell.  Unwilling to leave it at that, I put my name back on the list and watched as each name above me stood up only to fall to the shark.  But I would not fall victim twice, and on our second meeting I barely squeaked out a victory. My pool game, which I had fine-tuned in college but had let rust in my 10 months in Africa, was quick to return, and after winning another two or three, I had become the man to beat, the one the crowd cheers against.  But I loved it—I won seven games in a row before finally taking my leave from the table. Finished with pool and now appropriately intoxicated, I led my lady, whose wavy dark brown hair fell seductively over her eloquent blue dress, to the dance floor, where we danced the early morning hours away amidst a throng of still-hungry prostitutes.      

 

Gola Rainforest

With vegetation so thick the air itself struggles to breateh, the Gola Rainforest is nature perfected—a battlefield of evolution, where countless species wage war on each other for a chance at sunlight and life. It is a place where decay powers growth, where arboreal giants, festooned with flowering gowns of parasitic epiphytes, reign for centuries, and where the only navigable paths are those left by elephants. It is God’s playground, a corner of the world where life abounds, checked only by its own cannibalistic tendencies.  As Barbara Kingsolver once described it, it is a forest that eats itself and lives forever.

The country’s first and only national rainforest reserve, Gola is, nevertheless, practically unknown, receiving just 100 visitors a year. Located near the Liberian border, in the far eastern part of the country, some 40 kilometres from the city of Kenema, Gola is not an easy destination to get to. Those willing to make the journey, though, will be rewarded: not only is it a prime example of virgin tropical rainforest, it is also the most mammalian rich wilderness in the world.

 

Getting There

After five days in Freetown, Emily and I were ready to get out of the concrete jungle and into a real jungle, so we packed up and headed to the “Shell Gas Company” (not really a Shell station at all), where we could catch a car heading upcountry. Once there we quickly found a station wagon headed for the city of Bo, 250 kilometres to the east. After paying our fair (which was cheaper than the taxi ride across Freetown), Em and I joined the seven other passengers in the car, which was made for six, and we were off.  Four-and-a-half hours of discomfort later, we reached Bo and tumbled out of the car, only to pile into another for the last leg of the journey to Kenema, 75 kilometers to the east.

Nestled between the Moa River and the Kambui Hills, whose thick canopy of tropical evergreens is more often than not shrouded in a heavy blanket of flirtatious condensation, Kenema is a town blessed with beauty. But it is not just natural splendor that makes Kenema a worthy destination. Located at pavement’s end, it is about as far east as most casual (i.e. rich) travelers are willing to go and as far west as most diamond suppliers are willing to stray. As such, it is the diamond capital of Sierra Leone, and the streets are littered with shops advertising the precious stones for sale. But these aren’t jewelry boutiques we’re talking about, these are hole-in-the-wall general stores that happen to also sell raw diamonds, creating a stark juxtaposition between the resplendence of “Diamonds are forever” and the reality of African diamond production.  

Our time in Kenema was brief, however, and after a night spent at the local catholic mission, we woke early and made our way to the car park to catch a vehicle to Jaru and Gola Rainforest. Only, there were no cars going to Jaru that morning. Luckily, the motorcycle driver who had driven me to the car park—motorcycles being the overwhelmingly preferred mode of transportation in the area—said he (and another driver) could take us to Jaru for 30,000 Le each. I shot a quick glance at Em, whose face had lit up at the idea, and agreed.

The two-and-a-half hour motorcycle ride from Kenema to Jaru, and from there to Lalehun, our eventual gateway into the preserve, proved to be incredible.  The road, like a red scar running through the ever-rolling landscape, rose and fell, turning hither and thither, as it made its way further from civilization and farther into isolation. Every couple kilometers we would pass through some remote village, its rudimentary mud structures barely withstanding the elements, and then burst back into the sparsely-wooded expanses that characterized the region. This was diamond country: land that had once supported dense forests but had since been converted to farm land. Transparent treasures buried beneath fields of rice.

Upon reaching Jaru we were presented with a fork in the road, and after consulting a map, we decided to head north, toward the village of Lalehun. It was another eleven kilometres away, down one of the worst roads I’ve ever traveled; along the way we passed a handful of vehicles hopelessly stuck in the mud, and on several occasions were forced to get off the bike and walk as the driver navigated some particularly perilous stretch of road. But eventually we made it, and after a quick goodbye, the motorcycles drove off, leaving us to fend for ourselves in a village that epitomized remoteness.

 

Where to Stay

Ibrahim, a native of Lalehun, was the caretaker of the rarely-used Gola Lodge. He had left home that morning expecting to return come evening-time. Unfortunately for Ibrahim, who just so happened to a be a former guide, the one official Gola guide was not in the village the day Emily and I arrived, so it naturally fell to Ibrahim to take the two Americans into the jungle. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Ibrahim didn’t have a tent or any food. While Em and I took care of buying the food, the only shelter that could be found was a solitary tarpaulin.  But Ibrahim didn’t protest, and after gathering the needed provisions, the three of us set off into the thick, overgrown bush.

It was not long after leaving the village that we found ourselves immersed in the deep, dark, damp wilderness we had been seeking. It felt as if we had entered into a vast mosaic of leaves, its innumerable pieces held together by vines that snaked through the environs like hair from Medusa’s head. Rampant foliage was everywhere, punctuated by the towering monoliths that rose sporadically from the crowded forest floor, their tremendous trunks held by the undulating buttress roots found at their bases. Hordes of viscous insects assaulted my person, buzzing in my face and crawling up the inside of my pant leg to bite me where it counted the most.    

Other, larger, more exotic wildlife were also present, though my eyes could not catch sight of them.  Instead, it was my ears that located them. In a rainforest, one hears more than they see, and standing there amidst a sea of green, Emily and I were treated to a grand organic symphony: Mother Nature’s opus. The deep-throated growl of the chimpanzee provided the bass, upon which a myriad of other species—monkeys, birds, insects—built their own counterpuntal melodies, all coming together to form a deafening harmony of life. It was like hearing Bach for the first time.

After hiking for a few hours we came across a small clearing, no larger than a few meters squared, and Ibrahim announced we had reached our campsite.  The clearing itself was nothing spectacular, just a small leaf-strewn break in the trees, but that wasn’t why we had stopped; it was the waterfall hidden just beyond the trees that had prompted Ibrahim’s decision. After setting up our tent, Em and I left our humble guide, who was busy trying to start a cooking fire, and scrambled down to the cascading falls, where we sat atop the bare, water-stained granite and watched the day slowly diffuse into night.

 

What to See

Each small step forward was a battle.  Crisscrossing vines reached out like sticky hands, impeding my progress, but still I struggled on. That I was completely by myself in this tangled garden didn’t seem to worry me at all. Finally, I came across a long, narrow path and started down it. But then, suddenly, I stopped; something was moving behind me. I turned on my heels and found myself face-to-face with an elephant. The grey-skinned giant stopped and stared at me with its pearly eyes, and I just stared back, desperately holding its gaze.

And then I woke up. It was the middle of the night, and a torrential rainstorm was pelting out tent. With nothing to sleep on, I was horribly uncomfortable, but at least I was dry; Ibrahim was not so fortunate, however. After about an hour of lying, unsheltered, in the driving rain, he approached the tent, and using his broken English, told us he was walking home and would return in the morning. I felt terrible for him, but there was no room in the tent, so I lent him my head lamp and went back to my dreams.

When I woke the next morning, Ibrahim was already back, and after eating breakfast, we packed up camp and headed on. Our next camp, while devoid of any waterfalls, was much more open and inviting, and Ibrahim was able to build himself a bed from tree branches over which he strung up his tarp, so that when it rained again that night, he was able to stay dry.  It was a half a day’s walk back to the village the next day.

The jungle offered no great surprises during the three days we were it in, but that was to be expected. Perhaps if we had spent more time and travelled deeper into the preserve, we would have caught a glimpse of that elephant I dreamed of, but probably not. Either way, we had come to experience the rainforest and embarked on the return journey to Freetown happy we had done so.

 

More from Miller Guide Books

We hope you have found Miller Guide Books Presents: Sierra Leone both useful and entertaining. Make sure to keep an eye out for our upcoming titles, Miller Guide Books Presents: Tanzania and Presents: Ghana.

Happy Travels!