Sierra Leone Tours
As Seen in…
Places to visit in Sierra Leone and on our West African tours
Why visit Sierra Leone ?
One of the most compelling attractions of Sierra Leone is quite simply its amazing diversity. Lovers of nature will revel in its 147 mammal species, 67 reptile, 35 amphibian, 750 butterfly and 621 bird species.
This largely stems from a landscape of contrasts: the 71,740 km² are divided into four main eco-regions: the northern forest-savanna, showcased by the wonders of Outamba-Kilimi National Park; the southern rainforest plains which the island of Tiwai’s wildlife sanctuary has preserved in all its natural glory; the eastern high plateau, with Mount Bintumani’s peak reaching 1,948 metres; and the lowland coastal plains, now the main source of the country’s agricultural production.
It is this latter region which has provided the bulk of human activity, since the interior was, until very recently, a huge forest and marshland barrier to incursions. Since around 2,500 B.C., there has been evidence of habitation. Malaria kept cattle herders at bay and so it was not until the 9th century A.D. that Iron Age settlements on the coast began to spring up, and evidence of fixed agriculture begins in the 1,000s. The first European arrival came with the Portuguese in 1462 – Pedro de Sintra mapped the world’s third largest natural harbour at modern Freetown and named the hilly islands after the shapes of lionesses that he saw.
By 1495 the Portuguese had established a trading post on Bunce Island which can still be toured. The elegant waters of the estuary, frequented by pink-backed pelicans and ospreys give little indication of the brutal past of the main commodity – manacled humans. The British Admiral Sir John Hawkins launched a series of ships to Hispaniola in the Caribbean in 1560, filled with slaves taken from warring tribes along the coast and over the next 150 years the fortress on Bunce alone provided a shocking 50,000 Africans for transportation. The change in the nation’s culture came in the late 1700s.
As the American war of independence drew to a close, escapee and liberated slaves were shipped by abolitionists from Britain to set up a colony in Sierra Leone. Dubbed ‘recaptives’, the British brought thousands of individuals, first to establish Granville in 1787, which foundered amidst disease and then attacks from local tribes, and then Freetown in 1792. Visitors can now still climb the ‘Freedom Steps’ that were the first landfall for so many and see the bat-bedecked huge cotton tree which marked the first forest clearings of the new arrivals.
The nature of this liberty was not all it seemed: having suffered scores of family deaths on the perilous voyage from the Americas, ex-slaves were forced into apprenticeships, little better than slavery, a practice not abolished until 1928! The result was uprisings, one of which in 1799 was quelled by the arrival of Jamaican escapee slaves (‘Maroons’), conscripted by the British to form a militia and then given the best land in the Freetown area, confiscated from the rebels. The small white-washed church of St John’s roof is built from ship’s timbers from their vessels, a fascinating reminder of the nascent colony’s beginnings. More recaptives were sent across from the Caribbean in the 1800s and the modern Krio population and ubiquitous language arose from this curious mix of immigrants.
Clashes between the British overlords and the growing imported population characterised the 1800s and 1900s, particularly in the 1898 Hut Tax War. Yet the actual transition to independence in 1961 was relatively smooth and peaceful, leading to democratic elections. The aftermath was less comfortable: from 1968 to 1985 a socialist-style one party sate under Stevens held sway and was followed by military coups and a brutal civil war from 1991-2002. UN peacekeepers eventually enforced a democratic process and an end to warfare, but then the 2014 Ebola outbreak meant huge national suffering.
Amidst all this, democracy has held and the nation is increasingly looking to its natural resources as its chief assets. In the east, gold, titanium, bauxite and diamonds have brought income, whilst the huge range of animals that Sierra Leone encompasses make for obvious wildlife tourist potential. Yet this is still very much embryonic. 4.5% of the landscape is now protected and poaching and illegal logging have reduced dramatically as local people are persuaded to see the value to be reaped from sustaining the extraordinary natural bounty here: pygmy hippopotamus, bush elephant, bush-baby, colobus monkey, forest buffalo, three species of crocodile, sea turtles, a myriad of avifauna and the jewel in the crown, the common chimpanzee, all await.
Picture yourself drifting along the Moa River in a canoe, flanked by 30m tall forest, where red-backed colobus monkeys frolic as scimitar shaped hornbills glide overhead, watching carefully for a glimpse of a family of chimps to emerge warily into a clearing, and you will grasp a little of the magic of Sierra Leone.