Beaches and islands

On my first weekend in Sierra Leone, a colleague kindly offered to show me a couple of Freetown peninsula’s famous beaches. We went first to Lakka, a crescent of golden sand with a few palm trees, a couple of colourful fishing boats moored in the calm water and a number of simple shacks selling grilled fish, shrimp and lobster. We stopped for a drink at the rocky headland at the end of the beach, and I found myself wondering how much it would cost to buy the little resort of clapperboard houses with shaded verandas that appeared in need of some love and care from a new owner…

Soon (too soon) we were moving on, driving 50km out of Freetown to River No.2 beach, which most people seem to rate as the best of all. This one has white sand, bigger waves, and a stunning backdrop of jungle-clad hills – as well as a small river that meanders across the sand into the sea. You can lie in this river and drift along in the current as the tide comes in or goes out, or even take a boat upstream and watch out for monkeys catching fish, using their tails as bait.

A boat trip wasn’t on the agenda that day, but I walked along the sand, swam in the sea, drifted in the river, drank coconut water and feasted on grilled shrimps with really good chips. It is a beautiful place. I wonder how many years it will be until Europe ‘discovers’ Sierra Leone. Its beaches are as good as any I have seen in the Caribbean, and it’s only a 5-6 hour flight from the UK and in the same time zone.

The next weekend, after my work was finished, was Easter, and I prolonged my stay so as to go into the rainforest. I’d organised this beforehand over the internet as I wasn’t sure how easy it would be logistically to do it independently with only a few days for the trip. So at 6am my guide was there at the hotel to start the 8-hour journey to Tiwai Island. This is a 12km square island in the Moa River, which flows through the Gola Forest in the eastern part of the country. It is known for its pygmy hippos (although they are very hard to find, and we didn’t have any luck with them), its nine species of primate (we saw four and heard three others) and its 135 species of bird (I didn’t count…).

An NGO run by local villagers maintains some basic accommodation on the island – a number of tents set up on concrete platforms, with a dining area, kitchen and toilet/shower block. Alternatively you can wash in the river as I did. I slept well there, and spent long hours walking along some of the many trails in the forest. We didn’t see the white-breasted guinea fowl that my guide was keen to show me, but I was happy enough with the black bee-eaters, great blue turacos and yellow-casqued hornbills, which are all quite stunning birds. The Diana monkeys were also impressive. I did manage to pick up quite a few mosquito and/or ant bites, but that didn’t spoil the experience at all, I just wish I could have spent another couple of days there.

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