Sierra Leone: Africa's hidden gem is written by Naja Mammen Nielsen
Forgotten paradise with tarnished reputation
West African Sierra Leone is a forgotten paradise with white sandy beaches, a colorful culture and welcoming population.
Sierra Leone easily brings to mind a brutal civil war, blood diamonds - both real and those in the Hollywood movie with Leonardo DiCaprio - natural disasters and Ebola. But this small West African country deserves to be thought of in a more positive setting and has great potential as a tourist destination.
I myself have had the pleasure of visiting the country five times over the last twelve years.
Sierra Leone is real Bountyland
Sierra Leone, also called Sweet Salone, has one of the most beautiful coastlines in west Africa and was in the 1980s a favorite tourist destination for tourists from Europe. In fact, the long pristine beaches provided the backdrop for the Bounty Bar's "Taste of Paradise" ads.
When the Civil War broke out in 1991, Sierra Leone disappeared from the travel ads. The tourists stopped coming and today only the ruins remain from the former resorts. In 2014-16, Sierra Leone once again found its way to the international press; knocked to its knees by the violent Ebola outbreak, and in 2017, the huge amounts of rain in the capital Freetown caused a mudslide that cost over 1000 lives.
However, the beaches are still inviting, and if the Bounty commercials were resumed in Sierra Leone, they would definitely attract tourists again.
Long pristine beaches
Sierra Leone's beaches are the country's main attraction. At first glance, Lumley Beach in Freetown is inviting with bars and football games on the beach, but after dark it can be risky to move there. However, one does not have to be far away from the capital before the isolated, peaceful and elongated beaches lie like pearls on a string and are among West Africa's most beautiful beaches.
Lakka, Kent, Tokeh and not least River Number Two are still far from mass tourism. The latter is connected by a river that stretches many kilometers inland and is both the perfect place to retreat and to explore up the river along the mangrove forest.
The income from the small cottages goes to the villagers and helps to ensure the children's schooling. Here you have ample opportunity to enjoy a rum-coconut cocktail or Star beer and eat freshly caught fish, while being enchanted by the sunset, the intoxicating silence and the fishermen's simple daily life.
Should it be even more exotic and isolated, then it's worth focusing on the Banana Islands and Turtle Islands. Both islands require a longer journey and can be reached by small boats, but in return adventure, idyll and island life.
Rainforest, chimpanzees and historical experiences
Sierra Leone has more to offer than beautiful beaches. Freetown contains a harsh history with threads dating back to the time of slavery.
This is evidenced by a visit to Old Slave Castle on Bunce Island. The ruins of the old slave fort still remain, and although nature is taking over the old buildings, it is impossible not to be influenced by the history where more than 50.000 slaves lived and were sent away. The trip there is by speedboat or a fishing boat and requires a little planning, but is worth an experience.
It's a visit to Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary certainly also. Chimpanzees are an endangered species in Sierra Leone as they have been eaten, exported to other countries and kept as pets for years. But in this small zoo they are well taken care of and more than 85 chimpanzees live in safety in the area, where they have ample opportunity to swing in the trees and live as in the wild.
The staff make a big difference for the animals and besides getting on an exciting guided tour, there are others exotic animals to mock.
In Freetown it is easy to be overwhelmed by the colorful Creole 'krio' culture and the hectic traffic, but if you are into adventure, hop on a bus and drive into the country.
Here you can experience rare animal species on Tiwai Island - including pygmy hippos - follow in Tarzan's footsteps in the rainforest Gola, experience the diamond city of Koidu in the Kono region, where the film Blood Diamond was filmed and see West Africa's highest mountain Mount Bintumani.
Is it safe to travel in Sierra Leone?
It is almost 20 years since the civil war ended and five years since Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free. Despite the fact that the situation is stable and the country has made great progress as a safe place for visitors, there is still a long way to go between the tourists and the country is considered one of the poorest in the world.
The charter planes have long since been replaced by less crowded planes, but in fact there are good connections from several European capitals, and it only takes 6-8 hours to fly there. Despite the many bumps in the road, the people have a tremendous urge to walk, and rarely have I met such open, smiling, and strong-willed people who are ready to help you along the way. Enormous life-affirming.
Although the beaches are quiet and pristine now, Sierra Leone is slowly regaining its popularity. There is a particular optimism to be traced in the country. The infrastructure has been significantly improved - with the help of the Chinese - making it easier to move around the country, and slowly the hotels and restaurants are shooting up again along the coast.
If you are into exotic experiences far from mass tourism, Sierra Leone is worth a visit. Nice trip!
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