Sunday, November 22, 2009

Freetown and area tourist review

On our travels, Chris and I spent 3 nights in Freetown and 3 nights at River No. 2, a gorgeous beach just outside the city. We were complete tourists during this time, so I wanted to write up a little review of our experiences for other potential visitors to Sierra Leone.

In Freetown we ate at 4 restaurants (breakfast was at the guesthouse every morning), Balmaya’s, Mamba Point, Chez Nous, and The Rooster. They were all good. The Rooster is right downtown and more of a lunch spot – lots of shwarmas, burgers, and that kind of thing. Very reasonably priced. Balmaya’s and Mamba Point are both more expat type of spots. The food is very good, but the prices are comparable to a decent restaurant at home (i.e. $50 - $60 for dinner for two). We even had burgers at Balmaya’s one night – yummy! Chez Nous is on the Lumley beach strip and it’s nice to be right near the ocean. The food was good – lots of fresh seafood and a yummy fried rice.

Getting around
Getting around Freetown can be somewhat challenging until you figure out how the system works. Taxis generally run on pre-determined routes and are Le 1,000 a person for a one-way ride. We did this a few times, but our main challenge is that we didn’t know the routes. We got in one taxi that actually was supposed to turn in the opposite direction we wanted to go. When we realised this, the driver made the other passengers get out and took us onwards. Motorbikes also offer taxi rides and can make for a faster journey as they zip through traffic. They’re not good if you have much to carry though.

If you have a few people, you can either negotiate a one-way rate with a taxi driver, or you can charter a taxi for yourself for Le 15,000/hour. We chartered a car to take us to Charlotte Falls and Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and to River No. 2. My only advice on chartering a vehicle to take you out of town is to inspect the car first. The roads outside of Freetown can be 4x4 territory (i.e. bad!) and the more reliable the vehicle, the better. Also, make sure you know where you are going and have an idea how to get there. Although your driver may say he knows where you are going, there is still a high possibility that he doesn’t :-)

Downtown Freetown

On Saturday we spent the day wandering around Freetown’s frenetic downtown. You really get a much better feel for a city from walking around in it. First of all, for those that have any concerns about safety, I want to point out that it is perfectly safe to wander around (although watch out for traffic!). We definitely got a few stares as you don’t see many white people walking around, but over all we didn’t attract that much attention.

We stopped in Victoria Park, a small green space in the centre of town, to sit in the shade for a while. We discovered that hundreds of bats make their homes in the trees in the park. I have never seen so many bats in the daytime before. It was quite incredible.

We decided to make our way to Fourah Bay College to see the botanical gardens (mentioned in the Bradt Sierra Leone guidebook). The college is at the top of a very big hill and the views of the city from the top are incredible and worth the trip up in and of themselves (we took motorbikes up but walked down). Less so the botanical gardens. On arriving at the campus and I suppose looking lost, a man approached us and asked what we wanted. We mentioned the gardens and he offered to point us in the right direction. He took us to a treed area behind a building. It looked like it could once have been a garden, but it certainly did not appear to have been maintained in any way. Our guide then proceeded to show us around the college campus, something we weren’t really looking for but got anyways. We did see some small alligators (or crocodiles?) in a cage near the biology building, but that was about it. There didn't seem to be anything remaining of the botanical gardens that was worth seeing.

As I said, it’s worth the trip up for the views, but there’s not too much else to see there. Fourah Bay was actually the first university in sub-Saharan Africa (founded in the early 19th century) and used to have an excellent reputation. People used to come to Sierra Leone for university from all over the continent.

After our Fourah Bay adventure and some lunch, we visited Big Market to pick up a few souvenirs. This was quite an experience. The guidebook recommends going in with a firm idea of what you want and what you are willing to pay, and I would heartily second this advice. Upstairs in the market there are some very nice things – wood carvings, batik, country cloth, gara cloth and other printed fabrics. However, the problem is that there are about 40 stalls each selling almost the same items. Once people know you are spending money, each seller eagerly tries to get you to look at the merchandise in their stall. Chris had a bit of a hard time with the persistence of the sellers, but I think the trick is really just to be firm rather than too friendly, and to get an idea of what you want before you start to buy. For example, we knew we wanted a hippo carving. Once I said this, the sellers kept bringing me different hippo carvings until I found one I liked. Now that’s service! We managed to escape without spending too much money, but I may go back for one or two more things next time I'm in Freetown :-)

Freetown photos:

Charlotte Falls

Charlotte Falls is a beautiful alternative to the beaches and is just outside Freetown, about a 30 minute drive along the Mountain Road from Congo Cross depending on the traffic and the reliability of your vehicle. The falls are beautiful and the water flows fast enough to make swimming safe. The water was so refreshing, especially after the walk in to the falls in the heat. We only had about 1.5 hours there, but it was definitely worth the trip and if I was in Freetown I would definitely go again.

FYI: do not drive down the road to Charlotte without some good quality breaks. The taxi we hired to take us out there was probably one of the worst cars I’ve seen here. The road is fairly steep with lots of loose rock, and the brakes definitely weren’t working as they should. After a slightly scary moment of sliding down the road while the driver pumped the brakes, we decided to walk the rest of the way to the falls :-)

Charlotte Falls photos:

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary was a great experience, and they really do great work there (for more info, see There used to be quite a big population of chimpanzees in Sierra Leone (about 20,000 in the 1970s), but there are now only about 1,500 – 2,000 left in the whole country. They are threatened by two major factors: deforestation and hunting. Deforestation in the country due to mining and agricultural activities has been significant, and this destroys the habitat for chimps (and many other wildlife!). Chimps are also hunted for meat (a large chimp will fetch about Le 60,000 – 80,000 for the meat), and unfortunately to be sold as pets. When a hunter kills an adult chimp with a baby, the adult can be sold for meat, and the baby can be sold for about $100 - $200 US as a pet. Keeping chimps as pets in Sierra Leone is illegal, but it is apparently still a big problem. When the chimps are little, they are cute and manageable. However, as soon as they start to get bigger, people have problems (an adult chimp weighs an average 110 lbs and is 5 times as strong as a human), and the chimps are often either mistreated or killed.

Tacugama primarily rescues chimps that have been kept by people as pets. They started with only 8 chimps, but now have over 80 at the sanctuary. There are two bigger enclosures where the older adult chimps live, and two smaller areas for a group of adolescents, and for the youngest chimps. The idea is to eventually release them into the wild; however, without a safe and protected area in which to release them, which doesn’t exist right now in the country, releasing them would only further endanger them.

The coolest part was watching the young chimps swing around and play. We could have stayed there watching them for hours really. They’re amazing to watch, and so human-like! Apparently 98.6% of our DNA is the same as a chimp’s DNA.

Tacugama photos:

River No. 2 Beach

We spent 3 nights at River No. 2 Beach, about an hour’s drive down the coast from Freetown. River No. 2 is absolutely beautiful. I think it’s one of the top beaches in the world actually. White sand, warm blue water, and the best part – we only shared it with about 8 other people! Take a look at the photos to see what I mean:

The whole set up at No. 2 is run by the community and could really serve as a model for tourism in other communities in Sierra Leone. The community members take turns working at the guesthouse. They don’t get regular salaries, just a small incentive for their work. Whatever the guesthouse brings in is used to help improve the whole community. For example, the generator used for the guesthouse for electricity in the evenings is also available to community members for electricity. The guesthouse also provides income for local fishermen and guides with their excursions and restaurant.

The accommodations are basic but comfortable. The food is delicious, freshly caught seafood for supper every night (we tried the barracuda, the lobster, the crab and the shrimp, and all were SO good!). We ate right on the beach, looking out over the water. Breakfast is included with the room rate.

We did one of the little excursions they offer as well – a trip up the river by boat, and then a hike up one of the hills (the Guma Valley nature trail). It took about an hour and a half. We didn’t see any animals (a couple of other guests saw monkeys), but the boat ride was interesting, and the view from the top of the hill was amazing.

The weather wasn’t the greatest while we were there (it rained 3 out of 4 days if you can believe that!), but the ocean was still nice and warm so we got in lots of swimming. Less lying on the beach in the sun than we hoped for, but to be honest, the sun is so hot that the clouds were a nice relief at times! We also had beach bonfires two nights we were there. We didn't need the heat from the flames, but it was really nice to sit around the fire on the beach and chat.

River No. 2 is definitely one of the nicest beaches I’ve been on, and is highly recommended!

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