If you're considering a Sierra Leone holiday, we've got you covered. Rainbow Africa specialist Helen Kennedy was one of the very last travellers into the country before the tragic outbreak of Ebola in December 2014, and she sat down with us to share her best Sierra Leone travel advice and holiday tips. She visited in November of that year and discovered a country full of history, friendliness and fascinating culture, well down the road to recovery following the end of the civil war in 2002. Sierra Leone has now been free of Ebola since November 2015, and at Rainbow Tours we’re excited to be one of the first UK tour operators once again organising holidays to this little-visited gem.
Read on to find out what we learned about Helen's experiences in Sierra Leone and her best advice for travelling there, all wrapped up into 11 reasons why you should put Sierra Leone on your travel bucket list today.
1. It's easy to get to from the UK.
When Helen departed for her Sierra Leone travels, she flew via Brussels with Brussels Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance. Brussels Airlines operate regular flights to Freetown via Brussels from London Heathrow and selected other regional airports.
2. There are lots of ways to explore the country.
We asked Helen what she did when she visited Sierra Leone, and she said:
I had a mixture of touring with a driver and guide, and a few days based in Freetown with some day trips to nearby places of interest. I enjoyed both aspects, as staying in Freetown gave me a feel for the buzz of the city and let it sink in at its own pace; while driving gave a great insight into the wider country and the lives of the people outside the capital.
3. It's bursting with "must-see" highlights, as Helen explains:
Bunce Island sits in the Sierra Leone River in Freetown Harbour, about 20km upriver from Freetown. During the time of the slave trade, tens of thousands of people were brought here to be shipped to North America, and many African Americans today can trace their lineage back to enslaved people who stood on this island. A castle built by a British slave-trading company in the late 17th century still stands, and a visit to Bunce Island offers a sobering and informative history of the slave trade. I would say it really puts the country into perspective.
I would always include the beaches on a “must-see” list, and there are a number of really interesting wildlife areas such as Tiwai Island that are the perfect addition to any itinerary. The Upper Guinea Forest ecosystem, for example, is very different from most of Africa and offers something new for travellers who’ve seen a lot of Africa before.
4. It doesn't take too much admin. The key things you need to know before travelling to Sierra Leone are:
Ideally, plan a week to 10 days for a trip. Distances aren’t huge and you can cover quite a bit of ground in a shorter time span than you might expect. West Africa isn’t too far from the UK, and there’s little time difference or jet lag. You’ll have to hold a Yellow Fever Certificate to gain entry, and you need to have it at least 10 days before you travel.
5. You don't need any specialised gear.
For Sierra Leone, you just need to pack your usual travel essentials for a holiday to Africa. If you plan to explore the forests, you'll want good boots and waterproofs. They’re worth taking for Freetown, too, as there’s some great hiking in the hills around the capital. Birders and mammal-watchers will want a good quality pair of binoculars, because oftentimes what you're seeking is high up in rainforest trees. Oh, and remember Malaria tablets!
6. Sierra Leone is safe and eager to welcome tourists.
Helen said, "I had no safety concerns at all, and travelling with a reputable tour operator gives you that back-up and peace of mind. I would always recommend speaking to someone who has been themselves, as others will only be able to tell you things they may have heard on the news."
It’s important to bear in mind that the region has been Ebola-free since 2016, and the civil war was decades ago! Thanks to films like Blood Diamond, Sierra Leone has a reputation that makes some people wary, which is a great shame as it is not an accurate picture of Sierra Leone today. The lack of tourists has actually made it harder for many to find work and rebuild their lives, so tourist visits matter. You can make a huge difference by visiting and helping to stimulate the local economy.
7. The infrastructure is still developing but definitely won't hold you back from having a superb time with an "authentic Africa" experience
Sierra Leone tourism is still in its infancy, really. Most hotels are small, often family run, and will prepare meals for you—so the service is very personalised. Everyone speaks English too, so there is no language barrier to worry about.
Helen adds that she could really see that government money has been invested in the roads in recent years, which are generally good, and some of the main routes are tarred. This makes driving around easier than you might expect, and she says that she definitely enjoyed her time on the roads.
We do need to add a note of caution about infrastructure around the sites of biological significance though - here we're talking mainly about Gola Rainforest National Park and Tiwai Island: its basic, so we arrange for our clients to be taken to these places by our professional, experienced driver-guides, and we take all food and provisions along.
8. The wildlife encounters are special
The chimpanzees in Sierra Leone are a particular highlight. If you’re very lucky, you might get close to them in the wild. However you’re more likely to hear and see moving them in the rainforest – often dropping fruit out of the branches and onto the ground below, so watch out!
For close-up photos, then definitely visit the renowned Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. It’s really well run with lots of information available about the chimps and the work being done there. The staff there are incredibly knowledgeable and can tell you about each individual.
9. Sierra Leone has a lot to recommend it to adventurous visitors
For now it suits only the adventurous traveller and feels quite off the beaten track—although it’s still accessible. There are no big resorts or chain hotels, so it’s ideal for those curious to get exploring and to see local life, enjoy fresh seafood; and for those interested in scenery, history and rare rainforest-dependent wildlife.
A note we'd like to add on the wildlife: do bear in mind that rainforest wildlife is much harder to see than animals you might be used to seeking in more open savannah habitat. Rainforests are dense; population densities of most mammals are quite low and they are oftentimes skittish due to hunting pressure, even in or around protected areas.
10. Sierra Leoneans are extremely welcoming.
Helen experienced this over and over again during her travels to the country. She says: "The people are very happy to have visitors and proud to show off their country. Most locals in the city are busy with their day-to-day life, so tend not to just see a tourist and try to sell you something like you might find elsewhere."
11. And lastly… the beaches really are as stunning as they look in photos!
There are plenty of gorgeous Sierra Leone beaches, and most are almost empty. River Beach No. 2 is one of the best known (despite not having the catchiest name!), and as a result it’s more developed so you can also eat or stay overnight here. It’s also said to be where the Bounty advert was filmed many years ago. If you’re looking for a different beach, there are miles of golden sand down the peninsula so you can find the perfect beach to suit you.