Sierra Leone – paradise beaches and a buzzing capital (December 2013 – January 2014)

Sierra Leone lays now behind us and we spent an amazing 25 days in this small country enjoying a busy capital, picture perfect beaches and our first more or less serious wildlife viewing.

The border between Guinea and Sierra Leone was fairly busy and widespread but we did not encounter any troubles on the Guinean side. Once on the other side a huge building appeared as you would maybe know it from a main border crossing from Sweden to Norway. The EU recently built the tarmac road towards Freetown as well as this border post. Never before did we have to go through so many different stations to be able to get into a country but it was all cheerful and correct. The few requests for gifts were all harmless. One drunk military guy with a funny British accent told us that “it would make him fu**ing happy” if we would give him one of the dollar notes we wanted to change.

So we sped along on beautiful fresh tarmac towards the capital Freetown. To get to the city centre and the upmarket western areas of town we had to cross the poorer Eastern End which was teeming with small scale trade and heavy traffic. Once through the mess of the city centre we turned into the area of Kingtom where we were hoping for cheap accommodation at the St. Kingtom’s Pre-School Training Centre. Our request for camping in the car park was met with little understanding but we were eventually allowed to set up there and pay what we felt right. The two nights spent out there were not the most private once of our trip as there was a coming and going and we met many curious locals. Interestingly enough many of them brought up the civil war by themselves and were completely open to talk about it and share their experiences with us. During the days we explored the city centre on foot and navigated our way through the masses of people and vehicles, admiring the crooked old Krio houses built buy the first freed slaves. Freetown got its name because of being the refuge for slaves unshackled by the British who walked the Portuguese Steps up the hill into a free life. Contrary to many other cities we were completely left alone and could even wander around in the slums without any hassle.

In need of some privacy we moved into one of the dirt cheap rooms, also because Fabian decided to have stomach troubles again and welcomed the proximity to a toilet. We decided to spend a quiet New Years and took a taxi to the Alex’s Beach Bar and Restaurant in Aberdeen. With a beautiful view over a lagoon and over delicious stuffed lamb and roast pork we said goodbye to a good year, excited about everything that still lay ahead of us.

Still hoping for a chance to get the by now notoriously difficult to obtain visa for Ghana we headed to the embassy in the city centre. As it is so often the case the representation had moved to a new location and a friendly guy on his day off took us there with a shared taxi (poda poda). The secretary was not as stubborn as the one in Dakar and decided to at least discuss the matter with the female consul as usually visas are only issued to residents of Sierra Leone. After a lot of talking and waiting we were actually allowed to hand in our applications and were told to come back six days later. A little bit sick of the busy city we headed out to the supposedly beautiful beaches of the peninsula south of Freetown.

After driving the surprisingly rough Peninsula Road in the dark we ended up at a tiny camp at Tokeh Beach. SamTom’s Place has been there for 19 years and consists of a few small huts and a bar contrary to the surrounding Lebanese owned villas entirely made of bamboo. For two days we enjoyed the fresh sea breeze, relaxed atmosphere and the best crab we ever had prepared by Sam. Here we also met the Danish Mathias and his visiting family. Mathias is bicycling on an almost identical route to ours to South Africa and funnily did not leave Denmark so much earlier than us. We have to admit that we are extremely slow compared to most travellers but we thoroughly enjoy to spend more time in each and every country. 🙂

Afterwards we checked out a few more beaches and spent a night at a community run eco lodge at John Obey Beach. And then it was already time to head back and collect our Ghana visas. Just around the corner we applied for the Liberian visas and later met up with a German working for Toyota in Freetown. He invited us on a nice sea food dinner and we could spend a night at his place. Thanks again for your hospitality, Martin! On collection of the Liberian visas we met Mathias again and gave him a lift to Congo Cross where he spent the last days with his family. We enjoyed a nice evening together and were allowed to camp out in a car park once more.

Next on the to-do list was a visit to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary up in the mountains just out of Freetown. The sanctuary is rescuing chimps that have been kept as pets or mistreated in other ways and amazingly operated even throughout the troubles of the civil war under life threatening circumstances. The primates are going through five different stages of rehabilitation and are hopefully one day released into the wild. The humorous guide Moses gave us a brilliant tour and Fabian could recognize much behaviour that was described in the book he recently finished reading – the animal classic In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall.

Having gotten the Ghana visa against all odds we decided to skip the detour through Mali and Burkina Faso and therefore had a little bit more time to spare as our Nigeria visas would not start until the 8th of March. That meant back to the beach for us and we found a perfect spot with the local surfers at Bureh Beach. Those guys have learned surfing on wooden planks until an Irish guy supplied them with some real boards and the WHH built some toilets and showers as well as simple accommodation. When the beach boys were not too stoned we enjoyed volleyball matches and Fabian gave the surfing a shot with fairly little success.

In need of some internet we drove once more to Freetown which turned out to be a bad decision. Wanting to leave the city around midday we were stuck in barely moving traffic for 4 hours and therefore headed once more to the south of the peninsula and a cheap locally run guesthouse. Once on the road towards the second biggest city Bo Jasmine developed a severe headache and shortly later some high fever. We hoped that we did not hit the worst case scenario of Malaria and decided to settle down in our first air conditioned accommodation on this trip just outside town. A visit to the pharmacy and a quick blood test showed a positive result and then everything was going very quickly. After buying the appropriate medication Jasmine fainted just outside the pharmacy on the street. Immediately there were several people at hand trying to help getting her into the shade. Once a little bit more stable Fabian got the car and we drove back to our guesthouse where Jasmine spent the next three days in bed and on the toilet and Fabian desperately trying to rehydrate her. It is fair to say that Malaria is terribly little fun but at least the medication worked quickly and the fever was gone after two days. Unfortunately we chose the worst room of the guesthouse where the air conditioning seemed to be heating instead of cooling the air and no working toilet flush so after two days we moved into the heaven of a cool room.

Once Jasmine was back on her feet we continued to our initial destination – Tiwai Island. Tiwai Island is a reserve on an island in the middle of the Moa River where animals find a refuge from poachers and logging firms. Some of the more elusive wildlife to be seen are chimpanzees and the extremely rare pygmy hippos. As Jasmine was not at 100% yet we decided to camp somewhere on the way but could not find an appropriate uninhabited spot. So we decided to ask a woman in front of a deserted school (it was Sunday) if we could set up camp for one night. She clearly did not understand too much English but helped us to settle down behind the building and left shortly after. As the sun was setting all of a sudden a large group of men came around the corner. They turned out to be the high society of the nearby village consisting of the chief, deputy, teachers and other higher ranking people. They were fairly upset with us as they had never seen people camping before and thought we just sneaked behind the school without asking anybody for permission. A few other people had apparently seen us and were terribly afraid of the white people and their awkward vehicle. We were lectured that it is custom to visit the village chief before spending the night anywhere, our visas were checked by the deputy and we were told to take down our peaceful little camp and follow them to the village. We apologized repetitively for our behaviour and set up the rooftop tent again on an empty space in the village. The evening was spent talking until late in the night with two primary school teachers and discussed the way of life in Europe and Africa. Unfortunately we had to park on a slope with the car leaning strongly sideways so it felt the whole night like we had to hold on not to roll down a hill. That in combination with many curious villagers did not guarantee our best night so far.

At arrival at the small village along the Moa River which is the base for visits to Tiwai Island we heard about a new eco campsite. The village chief Hindua had a vision about a community run camp on the mainland which benefits and involves the local villagers and turned it into reality about three months ago. He cleared a beautiful spot overlooking the river with bamboo hammocks made by a blind man and lovely home cooked food prepared by his wife who is the chief of another village. Hindua is really an inspirational man and his biggest dream is to visit England once to see all the castles and historical monuments he has read about. So we lazed around in the hammocks for the rest of the day and decided to visit the island the following day.

In the mists of the early morning our captain paddled us over to the island – an amazingly peaceful approach to this wilderness. From the island camp we set of with our guide Bobo and a South African guy into the dense forest. After a bit of a walk we spotted our first monkeys fleeing high up in the canopy. Our walk was accompanied by the sounds of the forest and the noisy wing flaps of huge hornbills. Every once in a while we stumbled upon another group of monkeys and some let us observe them for a while. We ended up seeing black and white colobus, red colobus, sooty mangabey and the beautiful diana monkeys before returning to the mainland. The afternoon was spent under the thatched bamboo shelter witnessing the first heavy rains since we put foot on African soil more than 5 months ago.

Tiwai Island was to be our last experience in Sierra Leone and in the morning we set off towards the border to Liberia having in mind that right hand drive vehicles are officially not allowed into the country. At the checkpoint in Zimmi we got a small shock as the immigration officials checked our visa for Liberia and detected that it was supposedly issued in January 2013 instead of 2014. Once again we did not check our paperwork properly and expected trouble at the border with our expired visas. To improve things a little bit we took out a red pen, crossed the 3 and wrote a 4 on the visa sticker instead hoping for short sighted officials at the border. Just after Zimmi we picked up a trader who fell of the back of his taxi motorbike. He immediately made himself comfortable in the back of the Land Cruiser snoozing away on our pillows, reading the Sierra Leone guidebook and undressing down to shorts. And then the sky opened up again soaking the soil with rainfalls very unusual for this time of the year. The track doubled as a river and turned into one huge hole after the other filled to the top with water and mud while the trader bounced around in the back. And once again the sun was almost setting as we were still miles away from the border post.

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