As we drifted down the Moa river, long-armed monkeys danced through the canopy overhead, and small, brightly coloured birds swooped in and out of sight. Just as I was thinking that there was nowhere in west Africa more enchanting than Sierra Leone, the boatman grabbed his machete and made a sharp turn onto the river bank. He started to cut two long branches into spears. “What are they for?” I asked. “The crocodiles,” he replied, grinning. “Lots of them ahead.”
I struggled to see how a hungry crocodile could be fought off with a wooden spear. But the current was too strong to turn back and we had to go on. Trying not to look any more cowardly, I climbed back into the canoe. For the rest of the journey I gripped my spear and stared intently at every crinkle in the murky water. We made it back to the camp safely. To my profound annoyance, the next day a local told me the boatman had been pulling my leg: there were no crocodiles.
I was spending the weekend on Tiwai, an island covered in dense rainforest in the middle of a river in the south of Sierra Leone. There aren’t many west African rainforests left, so this was an idyllic slice of what this part of the world must have looked like a century ago. Although Tiwai was supposed to be one of the country’s main tourist sites, it was eerily deserted apart from a few caretakers. I found the same wherever I went. The white sands of the country’s world-class beaches were empty. The only foreigners I saw were mining executives or humanitarian workers.
For the last 30 years, Sierra Leone has been associated with violence and despair. It was brought to its knees in the 1990s by a brutal civil war that lasted until 2002. Just as travellers were beginning to trickle back, Ebola struck the country. Even after a huge and successful international effort to rid it of the virus, the damage was done – its fledgling tourist industry has not picked up. What a waste of potential. Sure, the country is challenging. As elsewhere in Africa, the roads are dangerous, and you need to be streetwise and organised. But it offers so much adventure to a traveller willing to step outside their comfort zone.
Sierra Leone is one of the most spellbinding places on the continent. As you sail from the airport to Freetown, the capital, its green mountains rise up to meet you. At night its lights shine out from every inhabitable speck of hillside. Freetown was founded in 1792 as a centre for freed slaves, absorbing migrants from the Americas and the rest of Africa. Today it is fantastically chaotic, with gritty bars and churning markets. Slums blend into dilapidated, colonial-era, British buildings, rickshaws toot and street hawkers shout.
A few tips for intrepid tourists. Souvenir-hunters can pick up funky wax prints from sellers in Freetown’s historic centre. Around its swankier Aberdeen peninsula and the picture-perfect Lumley beach, there are some classy bars and restaurants. Quincy’s bar overlooks the fantastically named Pirate Bay. Just outside Freetown is the splendid Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and an hour south is Bureh beach, where you’ll find the first surf school in Sierra Leone. The lads who run it won’t fail to charm you, but expect to be outclassed at beach football. There are national parks aplenty, from Tiwaii to Kangari Hills Forest Reserve, further inland.
But the most enjoyable part of visiting is simply to wander around and talk to people. Walking around Freetown one day, I charmed my way into a grand modern courthouse funded by the international community, where Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, appeared before being tried in the Hague for his role in Sierra Leone’s civil war. After he was convicted several guards were stationed outside, but the government effectively abandoned the building to the elements. When I pushed on one of the rotten doors it swung ajar and I saw where Taylor must have stood. It was sad to see a place of such historic importance decaying in the damp air, but it also felt strangely fitting. Sierra Leone is leaving its dark history behind. Hopefully more people will soon have a chance to enjoy its brightness.