Road trip West Africa: Sierra Leone

Another summer, another road trip, through another part of the world. A somewhat unusual holiday destination, you might say. But then, that is what we’re about here at Sophie’s World.

West Africa roadtrip

This time, we are exploring  Freetown, Conakry, Bissau, Banjul and Dakar – capitals of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and Senegal, respectively – and the (long) roads between them.

We arrive from Oslo and Manchester, approximately at the same time, but in different parts of BRX. I ought to be familiar with Brussels airport; have stopped by at least a hundred times through the years, though mostly on business for one job or another, so usually hurrying through. Yet today, I bumble about. Where are they?

Ah, I remember now. Got to go through passport control to get out of Schengen, whilst they were never inside Schengen to begin with. I blame my early morning flight.


Off we go. Brussels airlines will take us to Freetown, about 6 hours in the air. Time for catching up, for thoughts, ideas, plans…

That – and helping fellow passengers with immigration forms.


Sierra Leone!? You’re going on holiday to Sierra Leone?? Friends, family, former colleagues, the barista at my local coffee shop… all are incredulous. Honestly! They should know better by now.

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) gives the least paranoid travel advice, I find. They say: “Most journeys to Freetown are trouble-free.” The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is equally rational: “Most visits to Sierra Leone are incident free.”

The MFA adds: “Traffic accidents are a serious risk.” OK, but that just takes common sense. I can live with that.

Before leaving, I re-watch Blood Diamond with my youngest daughter. In hindsight, it would probably have been better to wait until after the journey. If you haven’t seen it, the film paints a chilling picture of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war in the 1990s. It is intriguing, informative, edge-of-your-seat intense, challenging and thought-provoking to the max. Filming and acting is superb. Excellent movie. Harrowing, but excellent. See it!

The movie also portrays a country with stunning scenery. Yes, I know it was filmed in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. But Sierra Leone is famous for beautiful landscapes. And – quirky fact: it holds the peculiar distinction of being the world’s roundest country, see the map at the top of the post here.

Getting there

We land at 17.00 at FNA. Freetown International Airport is not in Freetown, but in the coastal town of Lungi, separated from the capital by, well, the Atlantic Ocean. That means we have to catch a ferry across (EUR 45 pp).

A shuttle takes us to the harbour. However, before we can leave the airport, we have to pay a security fee ($25, payable in cash only, and in USD only.) Well, two of us have to pay. One of us slips through the door, unobserved. In all fairness, we were not aware of this fee, so it was entirely accidental. But the fee is legit – and possible to prepay online.

With a bit of a clean-up, this harbour would be an amazing welcome to Sierra Leone – or Salone, as it is affectionally known locally.

The good, the bad, and the pragmatic

Across the water, a driver from our hotel meets us. We have decided to splurge on lodgings here in Freetown. Soft landing! (Things will get a bit rougher. Watch this space!)

By the time we arrive, it is dark. We are told not to walk without escort at night in Freetown, even the very short distance to the nearest restaurant. It is up a short hill and around a corner – practically next door. Sounds ridiculous to me. But… first night, best to heed the advice.

Good morning Freetown

Sierra Leone is known for its gorgeous golden sand beaches. The best in Africa, rumour has it. We’re staying at The Lead, a new hotel out on the Aberdeen Peninsula, next to Lumley Beach.

From where I’m standing, the beach looks nice enough. Empty in the early morning hours.

But it was better before, we hear, when it was mostly little food shacks and beach bars here. Today, new constructions line parts of the beach. Progress can be an ambiguous concept.

8 things to see and do in Freetown

Time to explore. On our first full day in Sierra Leone’s capital, we wander downtown. The city centre is fairly compact; most of the places we want to see are within a few minutes’ walk of one another.

Everywhere, we stumble upon reminders that the city was built as a settlement for freed slaves. Freetown! I like the name – and the spirit.

1. Cotton Tree

Pride of place and centre of the city is the Cotton Tree. Sadly, this is what remains of the once giant. Standing steady for more than 230 years, it was felled by a heavy rainstorm, just seven days before we arrived.

And why is this tree significant? 4,000 slaves, who fought for Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War, were freed and re-settled in Sierra Leone (whether this is where they came from or not.) When the first boat arrived in 1787, they walked up to the Cotton Tree, sang hymns and prayed.

The descendants of the returned slaves are the Krio, Sierra Leone’s creoles. Krio pipul.

Krio is spoken by 97% of the population of Sierra Leone. A few examples:

  • power outage = blakawt
  • thief = tifman
  • bargain = bagin
  • happy = gladi
  • tomorrow = tumara
  • woman = uman

The Cotton Tree is the very symbol of Freetown, and the whole country, really. You can see it on the 10-Leone note (formerly, the 10,000-Leone note, 3 zeros were slashed from the currency in July 2022.)

Later, wandering around town, we spot this lorry.

Remains of the Cotton Tree?

2. Saint John’s Maroon Church

A 2-minute walk from the Cotton Tree is Saint John’s Maroon Church. From 1822,  this odd little church was the first example of Krio contribution to the then new Crown Colony of Freetown.

Maroon, you ask? Some of the returning slaves were Jamaican Maroons, descended from the Kingdom of Ashanti, enslaved in the Americas, then brought back to Africa. To Sierra Leone. Like most of the country’s population, their descendants are part of the Krio heritage.

3. Gateway to the Old King’s Yards

Doesn’t look like much, does it? But this gateway is on UNESCO’s tentative list, to be considered for inclusion on that coveted list of properties around the world; places especially important to preserve, for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

If you look closely, you’ll notice a cream-coloured slab above the arch. It is dated 1819, and reads:

Royal Hospital and Asylum for Africans rescued from slavery by British Valour and Philanthropy Erected AD MDCCXVII – H.E. Lt. Col. MacCarthy.

Today, this is the entrance to the government-run Connaught Hospital. Back in the 17th century, however, this was the Old King’s Yards, temporary housing for freed slaves while they waited for their documentation to be sorted, and where they received necessary medical attention. A bit like New York’s Ellis Island. Except no one were sent back from here,

4. Old wharf steps: the stairway to a new life

Also rather inconspicuous now, but these stone steps have witnessed history in the making. Many a freed slave first climbed these steps when they arrived in Freetown. The stairway to a new life.

5. The Big Makit

A further 2-minute walk, and we reach the Big Makit, a colourful 18th century arts and crafts market. That name, though! You’ll find wood carvings, musical instruments, baskets, doors, paintings, jewellery, textiles…  and just about everything else.

Wonder if Tracee and Jason are still living, loving and laughing

Time for lunch

All this sightseeing and shopping, gosh! Time for a bite. The Crown Bakery gets good reviews and it is just 4 minutes from the Old wharf steps. Seems many eateries in Freetown serve Lebanese food and this one is no exception. Not a bad lunch spot!

6. Aberdeen Lighthouse

With lunch over and done with, we want to head back to our hotel for a spot of lazing by the pool. And what better way to do that, than in a ke-ke!

But first, a stop at Aberdeen lighthouse.

We expect to have a look at this 200-year-old listed building from the outside only. However, as luck has it, we bump into the caretaker and his young son, and are allowed to climb the rickety spiral stairs to the top. And when I say rickety, I mean very rickety. The wooden steps are crumbling and parts of the upper floor is rusted through. I don’t think I have ever walked stairs more carefully. Bit nerve-racking, to be honest. Nothing like a touch of fear to get the adrenaline going.

Once we are back on solid ground, we agree this has been a highlight.

OK, now for that pool…

7. Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

I’ve saved the best for (almost) last, the number 1, not-to-be-missed, highlight amongst Sierra Leone’s highlights.

About 30 minutes from central Freetown, in the Western Area Peninsula National Park, is Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

The young chimps that end up here, have been mistreated and/or abandoned. Their mothers have for the most part been hunted to be sold as bushmeat (illegal). The young ones are too small, and can fetch more money when sold as pets (also illegal.) The primary purpose of Tacugama then, is to enforce Sierra Leone’s wildlife laws, and provide a safe space for the endangered orphaned chimpanzees.

There are many ways to experience this safe haven for chimps. You can join a guided tour or forest walk (a guide is necessary so as not to disturb them). You can stay in one of the 6 eco-lodges and/or join a yoga retreat – or you can work as a volunteer. If you’re not in Freetown, you can support the sanctuary as a partner, donate, or, my favourite, become a guardian for a chimpanzee, for example this mum and baby here:

Photo from

You can read more about the sanctuary and their important conservation work here – or follow along on Instagram here.

8. Leicester Peak

Returning from Tacugama, we stop at Leicester Peak. Normally, this lookout provides a stunning vista of Freetown and surrounds. But today, it is covered in mist.

Getting mistier by the minute

However, the universe comes to the rescue (yet again!) and hands us a local artist recording a music video in the rain. Not a bad trade, I’d say. Impossible not to join in the cheerful dance.

Also, the hotel receptionist (who was the one recommending a stop at Leicester Peak), has photos from better weather (see bottom of post).

Other Freetown things to see and do (that we missed for lack of time)

  • Drive 15 minutes from the city centre to see Old Fourah Bay College. From 1827, this was the first European-style university in sub-Sahara, spreading western thoughts and ideas. (Not sure if that’s good or bad.) The building was used as shelter during the civil war, then burned. It is located inside Freetown District Health Management Team, and not possible to visit, at least not officially. But DHMT security keeps the keys to the gate, and rumour has it, you might be able to persuade them to give you a peek inside.
  • A 5-minute walk south of Old Fourah Bay College is the National Railway Museum. Sierra Leone’s railways were shut down in 1974, and the engines have been kept here ever since, including a locomotive called Nellie! The former workshop was used as shelter in the civil war.
  • 25 kilometres south of Freetown, at the mouth of River No. 2, is the aptly named River No. 2 Beach. It is widely known as the best beach in the country, and possibly in all of Africa – and has been location for various commercials, including one for Bounty chocolate. The beach is managed by a community association that provides opportunities for disadvantaged locals. 5000 Leone entry fee for foreigners, and there is a restaurant and even a guesthouse if you want to stay the night.
  • Banana Islands is a 3-island archipelago just off the coast from Kent (a 1.5 hr-drive from Freetown, and a short boat ride from Kent to Dublin, the biggest island.) Wild beaches, rainforest, nature trails, and water activities abound (including diving to shipwrecks), as do mango trees, seafood and reggae music. The islands were first settled by the freed slaves from the Americas and you can see the remains of a slave fort with cannons, as well as brightly painted clapboard houses at Dublin. No roads, no cars, no electricity. Accommodations in eco-friendly guest houses, some with tents for glamping. Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?

Here are all the places mentioned in the post:

Where to eat, drink and dance in Freetown

You want to know where to eat, drink and be merry in Freetown, don’t you? Here are two spots we enjoyed:

– Toma Restaurant: good food, cool decor and interesting African art pieces, and, not least, a delightful entryway.

Welcome to Toma

– Somehow, we end up at Mamba Point every single one of the three nights we are in town. The restaurant has an extensive menu of various cuisines (did someone say Lebanese?) And, to our delight, there is a fab nightclub to dance away the night at the weekend.


Final thoughts on Sierra Leone

Leicester Peak fair weather photo by Marian Jehann

The ferry between Freetown and Conakry is probably a great experience. But as we have ground to cover, and not all the time in the world, the ferry times don’t work out for us. And just like that, our road trip now begins in earnest.

As we approach the border to Guinea, this is what goes through my mind: Sierra Leone gets an exaggerated (in my opinion) bad rap for violence, danger and extortion. I can’t help but wonder if memories of the exceptionally brutal civil war in the 1990s linger on in people’s minds. Fact is, that was over more than 20 years ago. Sierra Leone has moved on.

During our short stay in Freetown, I never felt threatened or intimidated in any way. In fact, I would say the scariest thing here is the traffic, (Think Cairo, Beirut, 1990s Bangkok…), so the MFA was right. But as I am soon to learn, traffic in neighbouring Guinea is worse still.

Now, this is of course anecdotal. Bad things can happen and it is necessary to be aware of your surroundings here (as anywhere). But common sense and keeping a cool head go a long way. Which means we are all good.

As we approach the border with Guinea, we are stopped at several check points. We are asked a few innocuous questions – where are we headed, etc – then cleared to carry on. No attempts at shake downs anywhere. The neighbour country to the north however, now that’s another story altogether.

Leaving Sierra Leone

Leaving Sierra Leone is a curious border crossing experience. One of several, we will soon learn. You can’t just waltz up to a window and get your passport stamped. Oh no! Instead, a guard leads us through long hallways and into a dimly lit office. Here, an officer – friendly yet stern – asks us to sit down, while she painstakingly notes our details in a large ledger: name, nationality, telephone number, occupation, you name it. And as electricity in the countryside is sporadic at best, all this takes place with the torch on her mobile. In the end, we are allowed to leave. All good!


In sum, Sierra Leone has been an all-round interesting encounter.

Farewell, Salone! Next stop: Guinea. Stay tuned.

All photos by Andrew Morland, Tom Brothwell and yours truly, unless otherwise noted.