Despite its lush rainforests, pristine palm-fringed beaches, fascinating history and vibrant culture, Sierra Leone is still a largely undiscovered destination. The country’s unique natural beauty once attracted 100,000 tourists a year, drawn to its secluded white sandy beaches, and refreshing waterfalls, until the horrors of civil war overtook the country. Since it ended, over a decade ago, visitors are starting to rediscover the West African country's splendour.
In some ways, nothing has changed. Locally known as ‘Sweet Salone’, Sierra Leone is still one of the friendliest countries in West Africa. The smiling people and relaxed attitude are characteristic of this small nation. Wherever you go, and whomever you meet, you’ll be greeted with open arms as though you were already part of the family.
The first thing you’ll notice when entering Sierra Leone is the lush vegetation and abundance of mighty rivers and quick flowing streams. These are the ingredients that create a recipe for one of the most concentrated biodiversity hotspots in the world. From the rolling hills of the Western Area Peninsula Forest to the remnants of the Upper Guinea Forest in the south east, passing through the Loma Mountains and Kangari Hills of the Northern Province, unique fauna and flora is everywhere. From the big mammals such as the hippos, forest elephants or the chimpanzees, to the smaller but no less interesting birds and insects, Salone is a biodiversity enthusiast’s dream. No wonder then, that David Attenborough, the legend of wildlife documentaries, started his career in Sierra Leone.
Nature is not the only selling point of this exciting nation. Sierra Leone’s first established higher institution of education, Fourah Bay College (FBC), is considered as the first ever higher learning centre in the region, earning the country the moniker ‘Athens of West Africa’. In the 1960s students from all over West Africa flocked to Sierra Leone to benefit from the FBC’s reputation for higher education.
Unfortunately, this gem of a country is overshadowed by its recent history. From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was the centre of one of the longest lasting and most brutal civil wars in modern history. Dramatized in the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this conflict is still one of the first things that most people think about when Sierra Leone is mentioned in a conversation. The current reality couldn’t be further from that.
This negative reputation is slowly being replaced with what are considered to be, by more and more visitors, as some of the most beautiful, pristine and cleanest beaches in West Africa, and some say, the world. Each beach along the small area known as the Western Area Peninsula has its own unique characteristics. Remember the Bounty advert: ‘A taste of Paradise!’? That beach was in Sierra Leone. If you’re looking for secluded palm-fringed slices of exotic delight where you can tuck into a plate of fresh chilli and lime marinated barracuda, sweet potato french fries and salad, this is the place to be.
The cherry on top must be that Salone is probably one of the most tolerant countries in Africa. It's common for Muslims to marry Christians, for faith-based festivals to be celebrated with equal enthusiasm by all, and for Christian prayers to be recited by a Muslim and vice versa.
With the combination of an off-the-beaten track feel, the welcoming attitude of its people, and awe-inspiring scenery, ‘Sweet Salone’ is fast becoming the next independent travellers’ destination of choice.