Salone’s dreamy coastline is another of its chief selling points, even in frenetic capital Freetown where, come evening, I retreat to tourist-friendly Lumley Beach, a heated hub of football on the weekend and a great spot to grab a sundowner at one of the beachside bar restaurants.
Touring the coastline, however, throws up constant reminders of Sierra Leone’s dark days as a base for the slave trade, and I gain my first glimpses of its legacy offshore on the Banana islands, a tour of Dublin taking in sites such as its infamous slave pit. Nowhere evokes the country’s blighted past more than Bunce island, the former British-operated slavery outpost near Freetown. Touring the ruins of its diabolic slave fortress, where tens of thousands of Africans were sold and sailed to slave owners in the Americas before its 1808 closure, is a sobering experience.
Unsurprisingly, the subject of slavery is never far from my guided tour of Freetown either, the city owing its very foundation to Britain shipping freed slaves here from the colonies. I trace those early arrivals through landmarks such as the surviving wooden houses of the ethnic Krio population; historic stone churches; and the aged Cotton Tree by the National Museum, an early gathering point.
Currency: The leone. At the time of going to press, £1 was equivalent to 11.15 leone. Visas: £109, available on entry.
Climate: Tropical year-round with two main seasons – rainy (May to October) and dry (November to April).
Best time to visit: September to February. Flights: Brussels Airlines flies from Heathrow to Freetown via Brussels. Other indirect options include Air France and Royal Air Maroc.
Vaccinations: Clients must have a yellow fever certificate.
Many memorable moments come courtesy of local interactions, from joking with market traders in Makeni to chatting with locals in Kona.
Arriving at Kambama village to take a boat to Tiwai I’m engulfed by laughing, fist-bumping and high-fiving local kids before the community puts on a show of traditional music and dancing.
Later, I stumble in to the town square in Kabala where I’d gone to attend a ceremony with some elders to gain the principal chief’s blessing and to hike up Wara Wara. Here, I’m swept up in a mesmerising melee of musicians, acrobats and witch doctor illusionists.
I come away loving the place. That said, it won’t suit everyone, not least first-time Africa visitors set on easy wildlife viewing or ticking off the Big Five. Similarly, luxury-lovers are unlikely to be impressed by the accommodation in remote areas such as Tiwai. But for nature and culture-loving clients seeking authentic experiences and meaningful local interactions in the real Africa, it could well be time to get Sierra-ous.
BOOK IT: Rainbow Tours’ new 10-day Sierra Leone Made Simple tour costs from £2,795pp, including Brussels Airlines flights to Freetown and sights such as Tacugama, Bunce and Tiwai.