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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Off the mainland are islands that served as transshipment points for the slave trade until the beginning of the 19th century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This research trip was partly supported by the Tourist Board Sierra Leone