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From the blaze of noise and colour that is Freetown to vast golden sands and thatched villages where women cook freshly caught fish over open fires, Sierra Leone is a charming surprise. It’s been a safe and peaceful democracy for over a decade, and its mix of exotic beaches, friendly people, lushly forested mountains, slave-era history and vivid wildlife make it one of the most engaging destinations in Africa.
Those beaches. Miles and miles of them, mostly deserted – all stunning. River No 2 and Tokeh are the most white-sand/palm tree idyllic, while Banana Island and Turtle Island offer a traditional experience with sandy bays and villages where you can mingle with the locals. The rainforested Tiwai Island is so teeming with wildlife it’s said to be where the soundtrack for Avatar was recorded, while eerie Bunce Island is the site of a huge, crumbling former slave fort.
Freetown is the only easily accessible city in Sierra Leone. A feast for the senses, it’s chaotic but captivating. The main attraction is the big-hearted welcome you’ll get at the lively open-air bars lining Lumley Beach. Old Fourah Bay College is an emotional reminder of the destruction caused by the war, while you can pick up handcrafted goods at the bustling Big Market. Don’t spend more than a day or two though – the main attractions are outside the city.
Any beach south of Freetown is worth your time. For a real community experience, visit the Tribewanted project at John Obey, where you can make dinner with the locals. Wildlife wise, take a boat up River No 2 to search for crocodiles, seek out the elusive pygmy hippo at Tiwai, or spend the night at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Banana Island offers excellent diving and snorkelling, with several wrecks (and piles of submerged Portugese cannons) not far from shore.