Destination Sierra Leone

It’s a rookie mistake that happens to me in Freetown on my first photo tour. I wanted to photograph the old colonial buildings on the hills of Sierra Leone’s capital in the early sunlight. But within minutes, all the lenses on my camera fogged up. I had cooled my hotel room and with it the photo equipment down to 24 degrees overnight with the air conditioning. But I did not consider the high humidity outside. Already in the morning the maximum air humidity prevails at 31°C. For 45 minutes no wiping helps to be able to take unclouded photos.

Trüber Blick auf die Kolonialbauten / © Foto: Georg Berg
Dull view of the colonial buildings / © Photo: Georg Berg
Sierra Leones Präsident Ernest Bai Koroma setzt sich auf Plakaten für Ebola-Waisen ein / © Foto: Georg Berg
Sierra Leone’s acting president Ernest Bai Koroma campaigns on posters for Ebola orphans / © Photo: Georg Berg

Sierra Leone: Exploring a new destination

The reason for my stay in this country off the beaten track: I am accompanying a group of German travel experts as they explore the destination of Sierra Leone. The country has been through two difficult decades, which are referred to here only as “The Crisis”. The term crisis sums up an eleven-year civil war and the Ebola epidemic that followed. Everyone in the country is determined to look forward and let Sierra Leone flourish again. To improve the infrastructure and the living conditions of the people, to point out the natural beauty and the rich culture of the country, that is the goal of the next years.

Deutsche Delegation im Ministerium für Tourismus und Kultur / © Foto: Georg Berg
German delegation at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture / © Photo: Georg Berg

It is no coincidence that the departments of tourism and culture are combined in one ministry. We meet the responsible minister Sidie Yayah Tunis in his office. In addition to our ten-member German group, the entire management team of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture is present. The meeting begins with a minute of silence, time for a silent prayer. There is pride in the religious tolerance typical of the country. We learn that ten ethnic groups cultivate their own culture and interact peacefully with each other. In the next days we have the opportunity to see with our own eyes the beauties of the country with its 6 million inhabitants.

Deutsche und Sierra Leonische Tourismusexperten tauschen sich aus / © Foto: Georg Berg
German and Sierra Leonean tourism experts exchange ideas / © Photo: Georg Berg

The tour, prepared by the National Tourist Board, will take us to places that are new territory even for the managers accompanying us. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, was the main administrative center in West Africa for the British Commonwealth until independence in 1961. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that before the “crisis” mainly British tourists visited the country. In the meantime, there are direct flights to Freetown not only from London, but also from Paris and (especially convenient for German travelers) from Brussels.

Flugverbindungen sind notwendige Voraussetzung für Tourismus / © Foto: Georg Berg
Air connections are a necessary prerequisite for tourism / © Photo: Georg Berg

Mass tourism is not expected in the foreseeable future. But that could be Sierra Leone’s strength, because there is a lot to discover: a relaxed yet typically African atmosphere with a good mix of recreation and active vacations. The country is virtually predestined for ecotourism, as nature reserves stretch along the large wide rivers, the establishment of which was anything but a matter of course. After all, one could have searched for diamonds in these areas.

Mit einem Guide im Naturreservat bei Gola / © Foto: Georg Berg
With a guide in the nature reserve near Gola / © Photo: Georg Berg
An den Küsten reicht der Regenwald bis an die herrliche Strände / © Foto: Georg Berg
On the coasts the rainforest reaches the beautiful beaches / © Photo: Georg Berg
Sonnenuntergang bei angenehmen Temperaturen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Sunset at pleasant temperatures / © Photo: Georg Berg

Off the mainland are islands that served as transshipment points for the slave trade until the beginning of the 19th century.

Ankunft auf Banana Island / © Foto: Georg Berg
Arrival on Banana Island / © Photo: Georg Berg
Ein begehbares Dach luftig an Palmen gezimmert (Der Blick der Linse ist noch durch das Salzwasser der Überfahrt verklärt) / © Foto: Georg Berg
A walkable roof airily carpentered to palm trees (The view of the lens is still transfigured by the salt water of the crossing) / © Photo: Georg Berg

Those who have moved into the simple accommodations after the crossing there in small wooden boats can now arrange their daily routine without complicated planning: diving, fishing or hiking to the small settlements where the descendants of slaves who returned from America have settled. Or simply enjoy the gentle breeze in a hammock and indulge in fresh fish dishes and fruity cocktails.

Der perfekte Gegenentwurf zum europäischen Zivilisationsbegriff / © Foto: Georg Berg
The perfect antithesis to the European concept of civilization / © Photo: Georg Berg

Sierra Leone is the size of Bavaria, and very few roads are paved. This also applies to connections to the country’s metropolises. The rainy season has left large mud holes in many places. Even with off-road vehicles, one is on the road longer than I had previously thought. But: If you have adjusted to African time concepts as early as possible, you extend your experience possibilities immensely.

Auf dieser Straße kann man 80 Kilometer in fünf Stunden schaffen / © Foto: Georg Berg
On this road you can do 80 kilometers in five hours / © Photo: Georg Berg

On the way, one notices the numerous motorcycles (mostly of Indian or Chinese design), which, as inexpensive cabs, are the best way to get through the heavy traffic of the cities or around the mud holes of the overland routes. These motorcycle cabs are called Okada in West African countries in reference to the long-forgotten Nigerian airline Okada Air. What both have in common is the poor comfort and speed with which they reach their destination.

Hauptverkehrsader nahe Kenema in Sierra Leone / © Foto: Georg Berg
Main artery near Kenema in Sierra Leone / © Photo: Georg Berg
In Europa nimmt man dafür ein Auto / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Europe, you take a car / © Photo: Georg Berg
Tankstelle: Getankt wird in Sierra Leone ohne viel Technik / © Foto: Georg Berg
Refueling station: In Sierra Leone, refueling is done without much technology / © Photo: Georg Berg

The many younger drivers earn far more than the average income with this profession, for which no training is necessary. The Okada drivers, who are over 30, are often former child soldiers who have been reintegrated into society in this way. For the most part, life takes place outdoors. And it is colorful, lively and varied.

Straßenszene in Kenema. Hier passen Fußgänger und Kraftfahrzeugführer nicht immer aufeinander auf / © Foto: Georg Berg
Street scene in Kenema. Here, pedestrians and motor vehicle drivers do not always watch out for each other / © Photo: Georg Berg
Wäsche waschen im Fluss - es geht auch ohne Waschmaschine / © Foto: Georg Berg
Washing clothes in the river – it is also possible without a washing machine / © Photo: Georg Berg
In Sierra Leone herrschen Optimismus und Lebensfreude / © Foto: Georg Berg
Optimism and joie de vivre prevail in Sierra Leone / © Photo: Georg Berg
Afrikanische Raststätte - ein Reisender muss nicht zum Kiosk laufen / © Foto: Georg Berg
African rest stop – a traveler does not have to walk to the kiosk / © Photo: Georg Berg

Markets are not only found in marketplaces but they quickly form wherever there are potential buyers. At every stop, it takes only seconds for our car to be surrounded by vendors offering all kinds of delicacies for sale in the baskets on their heads. Fresh banana chips, roasted corn on the cob, boiled cassava tubers, grilled meat skewers or drinks are delicious and cost little. SIM cards for cell phones can also be purchased from flying traders through the car window.

Visit to the chief in Kabala

Empfang beim Häuptling: Paramount-Chief P.C.Grawuru III. auf seinem Thron / © Foto: Georg Berg
Reception by the chief: Paramount Chief P.C.Grawuru III on his throne / © Photo: Georg Berg

A special experience is the reception at the home of one of the 149 influential chiefs of the country. We want to visit the provincial town of Kabala and climb the sacred mountain Wara-Wara. However, even for the director of the National Tourist Board, this is only possible with the express permission of the local authority. This authority is elected for life by the population, but always belongs to one of the ruling families. Our delegation is greeted by Chief Grawuru III and warmly welcomed with kola nuts. We quickly realize that this is not a matter of course.

Kolanüsse als Zeichen der Willkommenskultur / © Foto: Georg Berg
Kola nuts as a sign of welcome / © Photo: Georg Berg
Schüler hält es nicht auf ihren Plätzen, als sie uns im Auto entdeckt haben / © Foto: Georg Berg
Students can’t keep their seats when they discover us in the car / © Photo: Georg Berg

Visitors from Europe stand out. We notice this especially when children discover us and excitedly shout “Pubui!”, which means that people with white skin color are sitting in the car. Older locals, however, occasionally let it be known that tourists should not come with the attitude of colonial masters.

Gruß von der Veranda - wir sind überall willkommen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Greeting from the veranda – we are welcome everywhere / © Photo: Georg Berg

Respectful interaction

A peculiarity that one gets used to after a few days is the value that the people of Sierra Leone place on a respectful greeting. The important phrases “How di body?” (in Krio, the unofficial language) or “How are You?” (in English, the official language) the visitor should already know. “How are you?” “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” Every conversation after that continues in a friendly manner and this is true even if you initially found the demeanor of some merchants intrusive.

Kontakt zu den Menschen ist schnell hergestellt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Contact with people is quickly established / © Photo: Georg Berg

Only after you have greeted someone or bought something is it time to ask if photography is allowed. I, for one, have had the best experiences with being open and revealing about myself as well. This can sometimes take a little time. In marketplaces and other public places, there are often elected officials. It helps immensely to talk to the local president of the market women about the reason for the visit. Such an initiative spreads quickly. Afterwards, you are welcome at the market and can more easily get in touch with people.

Gemüsemarkt: Buntes Treiben und buntes Obst sowie Gemüse / © Foto: Georg Berg
Vegetable market: colorful hustle and bustle and colorful fruits and vegetables / © Photo: Georg Berg

Diamond smuggling financed the civil war

In the provincial capital of Kenema, on the edge of the diamond mining area that is still in operation today, we want to learn more about the reasons for the civil war that ended in 2002. It is astonishing that the opponents of that time cannot be assigned to any political position. The war had originally started in neighboring Liberia and spread across the border to Sierra Leone because of the precious mineral resources, which – as blood diamonds – enabled all warring parties to procure weapons. The diamond boycott initiated by the UN banned international trade without official certificates from the country of origin. A short time later, the Kimberly Agreement, agreed in 2000, took effect. The wars were ended and even today tourist luggage is scrupulously checked for diamonds when leaving Sierra Leone.

In Kenema findet man zahlreiche Diamantenhändler / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Kenema you can find numerous diamond dealers / © Photo: Georg Berg

Travel documents for vacation in Sierra Leone

The visitor needs a passport valid for six months and a tourist visa, which must be applied for in Germany at the embassy.

Medical specifics

The yellow fever vaccination is obligatory. The vaccination passport must be presented upon entry into Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is a malaria area. Therefore, light-colored clothing and the carrying of insect repellents is recommended. General practitioners provide individual information on whether malaria prophylaxis with medication is indicated.

Typisches Krankenhaus in Sierra Leone. Das Wartezimmer ist vor der Tür / © Foto: Georg Berg
Typical hospital in Sierra Leone. The waiting room is outside the door / © Photo: Georg Berg

Flight to Sierra Leone

Brussels Airlines flies from Brussels to Freetown four times a week. Lunghi Airport is located on a peninsula and can only be reached from Freetown by boat or helicopter. The overland route to the capital would take 4 hours.

Currency in Sierra Leone

ATMs and credit cards are hardly common in Sierra Leone. At the airport and banks in the major cities, Euros (only 50 and 100 Euro bills, no smaller ones) can be exchanged for Sierra Leone Pounds. The highest bill is 10,000 pounds. This is equivalent to a little more than 1 euro.

Stapelweise Bargeld - auch in Sierra Leone / © Foto: Georg Berg
Stacks of cash – also in Sierra Leone / © Photo: Georg Berg

Telephone / Internet in Sierra Leone

For the fact that there are not so many landlines in Africa, the network for mobile phone calls is relatively well developed. German SIM cards do not work in Sierra Leone, because there are no roaming agreements. Relatively cheap are prepaid SIM cards from Airtel or Africell.

Mobilfunk ist in Sierra Leone weit verbreitet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Mobile telephony is widespread in Sierra Leone / © Photo: Georg Berg

There are a very large number of kiosks or flying merchants that top up amounts of money in a very short time. (“Mobile, top it up”) To do this, it is best to have the phone number of your own SIM card ready on a piece of paper.

A data volume for mobile Internet can be deducted from the prepaid amount by entering *800#. 100 MB costs approx. 5 euros. Phone calls via Whatsapp or other IP-based services are possible and cheap. WLAN is available in some hotels.

Best time to travel to Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is just north of the equator and the thermometer rarely drops below 30°C, even at night. Rainy season starts in May and lasts until October. The most pleasant climate is from October to February where the maximum temperature hardly exceeds 35°C.

Himmel über der Tiwai Insel. Die Regenzeit neigt sich dem Ende zu / © Foto: Georg Berg
Sky over Tiwai Island. The rainy season is coming to an end / © Photo: Georg Berg

No lions in Sierra Leone

Although the name Sierra Leone suggests otherwise, there are no lions in the whole country. Other animals known in Africa, such as giraffes and zebras, are also not to be found in Sierra Leone.

Giraffen gibt es in Sierra Leone nur als Souvenir / © Foto: Georg Berg
Giraffes are only available as souvenirs in Sierra Leone / © Photo: Georg Berg

Nevertheless, Sierra Leone has a particularly rich fauna. The pygmy hippopotamus, which is only native to Sierra Leone, is not so easy to observe – because it is post active – and on Tiwai Island there is the largest primate retreat in Africa.

Near Freetown there is a large forest area for eco-tourists with overnight accommodations where chimpanzees can be observed.

Bei Freetown werden Schimpansen wieder auf die Wildnis vorbereitet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Near Freetown, chimpanzees are being prepared for the wild again / © Photo: Georg Berg
Wildlife pur: Chimpansenmutter mit ihrem Baby / © Foto: Georg Berg
Wildlife pure: Chimpanzee mother with her baby / © Photo: Georg Berg

This research trip was partly supported by the Tourist Board Sierra Leone

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