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A diamond in the rough or just cheap glass? Sierra Leone
This trip came around because my friend Fay wanted to stop by on her trip home and she said she wanted to go from Sierra Leone to Ghana, I of course was game. It would have nice to have a bit of time at home, but I knew I would have time later. After the standard trip down to Accra and meeting Fay in the airport and spending two nights in Accra seeing a bit of the city, we took off on a flight from Accra to Freetown at 1:00 in the morning.
We landed in Freetown at about 3:45, now we had been reading up and were expecting a very different arrival than the one we got. The Freetown airport is located on a peninsula across the bay from Freetown and you need to get a ferry, among other things such as helicopters, speed boats and hovercrafts, to Freetown and the prices like the mean varies greatly. When we landed we were expecting to have to deal with getting to the city, but it played out very differently. We were basically guided through the airport, out onto a bus which then took us to a ferry, all for free, apparently because of the late arrival.
When we got to the mainland we were approached by a few people all wanting to know what we were going to do, we wanted to leave the city and go straight down the peninsula that Freetown sits on to the beaches. It was about 5:00 and we hadn’t slept and were feeling out of place so the whole thing was overwhelming but it all ended well. We were introduced to the Mayor of Freetown and a Chief from the Peninsula. The Mayor asked the Chief to take us to his house to wait until about 7:00 because he said it wasn’t safe to wait where we were. We took the generous offer and found our self at the Chief’s house after a short ride in his car. The Chief had been in Tanzania for a few weeks, so he was greeted warmly by his family and we were introduced, they gave us seats on the porch and we watched the sun rise. This was the setting of one of the best experiences of the trip, the chief said he was going to prey with his family and, so he went inside and they they began singing a beautiful song about returning home, it was a surreal moment watching the sunrise on my first day in Sierra Leone with the family signing in the background, very nice.
Once it was about 7:00 the chief sent us back into town with his sun to help us change some money and put us in some shared transport to the area of the peninsula we wanted. This went smoothly, and we found ourselves on the road to River No 2, which is an area around, yep you guess it, the second river on the peninsula. The road to there was terrible, right from the beginning in Freetown but we arrived there and walked down to the village and found the guesthouse on the beach and we settled in and we rested.
The guesthouse was nice, located right on the beach, it must get a lot busier as there were eight bungalows and a huge number of chairs and tables and beach huts lining the beach, but it was completely empty when we were there. There was no power except between about sundown and midnight when the village switched on a generator, the lack of power was going to become a theme to this trip. But we enjoyed the beach, clean and pristine and the water was very warm. There was quite a slope, so you couldn’t really swim and there was a bit of a riptide like most of the beaches along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Tried rice a potato leafs for the first time, it was pretty tasty and of course spicy.
In the morning we headed off to catch a shared taxi to Kent on the end of the peninsula, from here we were planning on catching a boat the short distance to the Banana Islands. A guy from the village guided us, we had to cross the river and walk down the beach to Tokeh beach. This was quite an interesting walk, there was an old resort from before the conflict and you could see the destroyed rooms and pool, there was even an old helicopter pad.
We got to Kent with no trouble and found our way down to the water where there was a collection of fishing boats. We got a ride with the owner of the guesthouse we were going to stay at; we basically had to as no one else was willing to take us across due to the “laws” of the island, it ended up costing a pretty penny for the 20-minute boat ride. The island had a ruling council (for the greater good) and they fixed all the prices, for instance as we were to find out, the three guesthouses on the island all serve the same dishes and charge the same thing and “discouraged” anyone else from selling food, but oh well.
The Banana Islands consist of three islands, the bigger Dublin Island, Ricketts Island which is slightly smaller, and the tiny Mes-Meheux Island. The islands had started out as a base for the slave trade and then an anti-slavery base after the British abolished slavery, today they are inhabited by about 900 people, mostly descendents of freed slaves. There were amazing old colonial houses and even old lamp posts, that used to hold oil lamps, located at some key areas such as the well, the main street and at the bays where the boats landed. We spent two nights on the island, doing a bit of swimming and exploring, there were lovely sandy beaches with warm water, unfortunately there was quite a bit of garbage that washed up. We walked from Banana Island to the village on Ricketts Island, they relate to a rock bridge when the tide is low, and it was about a four-hour round trip through the forest. It was a peaceful place and very tranquil, I did treat myself to a lobster for dinner one night.
We got a boat back to Kent on the second morning and then hoped a couple mini-buses back to Freetown. We spent the afternoon looking around Freetown and taking in the old colonial buildings that still spot the. There is a huge Cotton tree in the middle of the city that can be seen from anywhere, also there is an old hospital that was used to treat freed slaves. It was a nice city, but you could see the greatly varied history that it has, starting from the colonial days and moving into the beginning of independence with the great high-rises, the scares left by the conflict both on the city and the people and finally finishing with the growing pains of a city trying to support more people than it should causing severe traffic jams, potholed streets and blackouts.
The next morning, we got the early bus to Bo which is roughly in the middle of the country, we were hoping to head straight out to the Wildlife Sanctuary of Tiwai Island but unfortunately when we called we were told they had no accommodation for that night, so we were forced to spend the night in Bo. It’s the second largest city but it doesn’t have much to it, a lot of Diamond trading offices though.
The next morning, we got a mini bus out to Potoru to get a boat to the island. Well we wanted to leave in the morning but as with Africa things move at their own pace and we left Bo (on an extremely overloaded mini bus with people on the roof) around midday and after many stops to load and unload passengers we finally arrived at Potoru at just before 18:00. We were met by the boat man and our chef and taken to the island and served dinner and then we went to bed. Sometimes the day where you do nothing can really take it out of you.
Tiwai Island is an Island that sits in the Moa River; the whole thing is a Wildlife Sanctuary and contains a large population of various primates as well as the elusive pygmy hippo (we didn’t get to see any). We slept in tents and ate the local food the chef cooked which wasn’t bad. The whole place is environmentally friendly and runs of solar power.
In the morning we did a walk around the island and got to see various primates playing in the trees. There were also lots of giant millipedes and tons of termites’ running back and forth to their nests. Did a bit of swimming in the river, well not really swimming the current was far too strong but the water was refreshing. In the afternoon we took a canoe trip down the river but didn’t see much.
It was a nice nature reserve, but it was extremely pricey (comparatively speaking), 20 USD each to sleep in a tent and the food and trip prices followed accordingly. After being to some of the parks in Ghana and comparing it with others I have visited they always come out on top for value.
The next morning, we left early and got the boat back. We found a couple of motos and haggled an ok price to take us all the way to the Liberian border. It was about a three-hour moto ride over some bumping dirt roads. There was also a river crossing in the middle but when we got there the ferry was broken. It was a simple pulley ferry and they had it fixed in about two hours, so we were on our way again.
We reached the border in the afternoon and crossed over without any trouble and entered Liberia just as easily. We had gotten our visas for the countries beforehand, so it was a simple procedure. The border guards were friendly; they always seemed surprised when we said tourism as the reason for travel. We hopped in a shared taxi and headed for Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
Sierra Leone will defiantly be a travel destination one day; it’s just not quite there. It has the beautiful beaches; mountain ranges and the wildlife are starting to return. It needs a bit of work on its transport system and power grid to make it a truly comfortable destination. The people are very friendly, inviting and seem happy even after everything that has happened. In five years I can see it starting to really take off and in 15 years it’s going to be over run, but right its empty, we only met one other traveler the whole time we were there, and they were on vacation from Liberia. So, I would sum it up and say its beautiful country, with a few things to see but it’s a lot of work in a region where there are easier destinations.