Sierra Leone is a country that defies your expectations. Perched on the coast of West Africa, it's a place on the very edge of global consciousness, where the romantic dream of Africa meets the hot, sweaty reality. On Freetown's streets a thousand dramas are played out daily. Along palm-fringed shores, white sand beaches stretch out as if plucked from a dreamer's imagination and in the interior, red, earthen roads pierce dense jungles, revealing their mysteries to the intrepid. Sierra Leone is a place of adventure.
My urge to visit the country arrived subtly but grew irresistibly, nourished by whispered rumours of an unmatched vibrancy to the Dark Continent. My ears pricked whenever I heard the name mentioned. Then, scanning the internet, I stumbled upon a peculiar fact: Sierra Leone had just opened its first ever surf club – and the founder was a Galwayman! Intrigued, I made my decision. I sent an email to the unlikely founder, booked my flights and packed my bags.
The first challenge for travelers arriving into Lungi International Airport is getting to Freetown. An incredulous feat of urban planning located the national airport and the capital on opposite sides of West Africa's largest natural harbor. Options abound for making the commute but none are heartily recommended. Speedboats have gotten lost, hovercrafts have broken down, a ferry sank and a helicopter crashed! In spite of the dastardly reports, I made a smooth crossing and two hours after touching down I was in Freetown.
Sierra Leone's capital is a pulsing African city; it frizzes like there is electricity in the air. The streets are thronged day and night with lives led in public view. Dominating the city centre is a huge, 500-year-old cotton tree. A national symbol, it has watched over the country's tumultuous history in a silent reverie. Today it overlooks a struggling country, but one finally showing long hoped for green shoots of progress.
While East Freetown is the raucous beating heart of the city, the Aberdeen and Lumley districts on the West side are probably the most tourist friendly areas of the country. Beach bars and restaurants line the sandy beach where cold beer and fresh barracuda is served against a backdrop of giant ships coasting along the horizon. On the weekends this is the spot where well-to-do Sierra Leoneans mingle with ex-pats and dance the night away.
After a few days exploring the city, I met up with the surf club pioneer, Shane O'Connor. A Galway native, his tan marks him out as an Irishman who has spent plenty of time abroad. He first came to Sierra Leone in 2006 to visit a friend. He and his partner, Emily, fell in love with the country. When the opportunity arose to come back and work there they seized it. Now, with the weekend coming and time off work, Shane from his business and Emily from an NGO, they proposed we take a trip down the peninsula. I gladly agreed.
Bureh Beach is one of the prettiest stretches of a star-studded coastline. A long crescent beach curves up the coast until it meets lush jungles spilling off rugged hills into the gleaming blue ocean. The village is nestled at the South end by a river which flows into the bay, sculpting the sandbar that produces one of the best waves in Sierra Leone: a long, mellow, left hand point-break.
We arrived in Bureh the evening of one of Sierra Leone's more esoteric celebrations: Bob Marley Day. Celebrating his life on the anniversary of his death, a small bar pumped bass-laden reggae out into the night. Inside, Shane introduced me to members of the Surf Club, all decked out in green, gold and red. The vibe was infectious and cold beers flowed. It struck me that even in such a foreign place peoples' goals are the same: to spend time happily with family and friends.
Club funds are
The Bureh Beach Surf Club is a community based organisation. All revenue from lessons, gear rentals and food is reinvested locally. Shane explained he wanted to keep the financial benefits within the community, saying, “Basically I wanted to help my friends and make sure they got the benefits of the natural resources, the waves here in Bureh.” However, getting started was not easy. The village chief had to be consulted and convinced of the club's merits. At a time when beachfront property is becoming a sought after commodity in Sierra Leone, land had to be acquired. Yet with support both locally and from abroad, the club opened its wooden shutters for the first time in December 2012.
It has been a great success. Charles, one of the young surfing talents of Sierra Leone, told me that now, “the community thinks that surfing is the best thing in Bureh.” He explained that along with being enormous fun itself, surf lessons provide a source of much needed income for local surfers. Tourism to the beach has increased and small businesses, such as the fantastic, shore-side “Prince's Guesthouse”, have sprung up to accommodate the new visitors. Jabez, a senior surf instructor with the club says, “Now everybody's in love with surfing, everybody wants to get in the water!”
After my tranquil stay in Bureh, I decided to cross the country to Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Traveling any distance in Sierra Leone is an arduous affair. A motorcycle taxi ride over pockmarked dirt roads left me white-knuckled and nursing a sore rear. The next leg was particularly memorable. Halfway through a four hour, eight-people-crammed-in-a-tiny-taxi ride my driver got tired. He asked me to take over. Then he hopped in the back with the other travelers, chatting and joking and tapping me on the shoulder to indicate when I should stop for passengers!
The sanctuary was worth the journey. The camp, set up in the 80s, survived the horrors of the civil war relatively unscathed and the simple facilities and peaceful setting provide a mini-Eden for weary travelers. Although I was the only visitor it was far from quiet. Nature runs riot here. The 12 kilometre square island is home to an astonishing 11 species of primates, including colombus and diana monkeys and chimpanzees. Over 135 species of birds nest in trees whose trunks and roots are so odd they could be from another world. The rare and illusive pygmy hippo also calls the island its home. Friendly guides from the local village are delighted to bring visitors on both foot and boat tours around the island.
Traveling in Sierra Leone is a challenging but rewarding experience. Plans should be made with more than a pinch of salt thrown in and patience is the watchword. Tourism, although growing, is still rare. Westerners attract attention, particularly in rural areas, but attention prompted by genuine curiousity rather than malicious intent. Sierra Leoneans have had more than their share of problems, yet they meet adversity with a blasting, ear-to-ear smile that's impossible not to admire. Sierra Leone is a country that dances to its own rhythms. Let its pulses draw you in and you'll find yourself coming home dancing.